A memoir needs a story arc as much as a novel does? Is this an April Fool’s joke?

Of all the many, many mysteries that keep those of us who handle manuscripts for a living up at night, none is so recalcitrant — and, even more trying to the editorial mind, positively immune to diagnostic analysis — than why it so often seems to come as a complete surprise to memoirists to be asked, “What’s your book about?” From a publishing perspective, few questions could be more straightforward, or more predictable: presumably, something occurred in the memoirist’s life that he thought would make a good story on paper, right?

To your garden-variety memoirist, however, answering this inherently loaded question is complicated. Or so publishing professionals surmise, from the long pause that typically ensues. Often preceded by a gusty sigh and succeeded by a sudden avalanche of seemingly unrelated personal anecdotes.

That’s the standard response, by the way, regardless of the context in which a memoirist is asked what her book is about. Be it at a writers’ conference, in a social interaction at the bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, at a party mostly peopled by non-writers (oh, we do manage to mingle occasionally), or even in a pitch meeting, people writing about their own lives tend to change the subject. Rather quickly, too.

If you’ll forgive my saying so, memoirists, that’s a pretty remarkable reaction, at least to those of us prone to hanging out with writers. Published and as-yet-to-be published writers are notoriously fond of talking about their work, sometimes to the exclusion of actually working on new projects. Heck, there’s even an old joke about it:

Aspiring writer at cocktail party: I hear you’re an agent. I’ve written a book…

Agent (instantly scoping the exits): I’d love to hear about it, but I’m afraid I have only an hour left to live.

Hey, I didn’t say it was a good joke, but it is reflective of the way the rest of the world views writers. A writer’s will to communicate tends to be pretty strong, after all; even a shy writer will often burst into chattiness when given the slightest encouragement to talk about his work-in-progress. So it just doesn’t make sense to the rest of the human population when someone writing about what should be the most absorbing topic of all, dear self, doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.

Indeed, from the intensity of that sigh that’s always blowing those of us kind enough to inquire over sideways, the mere mention of it seems to be quite painful. As a memoirist myself, someone who recently wrote an explanatory introduction for somebody else’s memoir, a lifetime interview subject for biographies about the famous and semi-famous (I’d tell you about it, but that would involve blurting out my life story; oh, the pain), and a frequent editor of memoir, I think I can tell you why.

What we have hear, my friends, is a failure to communicate. What a memoir-writer hears is not the question, “So what is your book about, anyway?” but something closer to, “Sum up your life in fifty words or less. Kindly include a brief summary of the meaning of life in general while you are at it. Please bear in mind that how you will be remembered after your death rides on this answer. Ready — go!”

Just so you know, writers of the real: that’s not what’s being asked here. The Inquisition is not breaking out the thumbscrews, demanding a confession. Not at a cocktail party, not at a writers’ conference, and certainly not when anyone that might conceivably be able to help you get your memoir published brings it up.

So what are these fine folks asking? Precisely what they would ask any other writer. What they are hoping to hear is a short, cogent summary of your book’s story arc.

Imagine their surprise, then, when the memoirist abruptly clams up. Or starts muttering into her drink a shaggy dog tale about the summer of 1982 — a particularly effective evasive technique, as 1982 was for so many of us a year best forgotten altogether.

And those are the courteous responses. Sometimes, the well-meaning questioner will merely elicit a begrudging snort of, “Well, obviously, it’s about me.”

Of course, any prospective author is perfectly at liberty to shorten her list of friends to contact when her book comes out — oh, you thought the recipient of such a dismissive answer was going to break down the doors of his local indie bookseller to buy that memoir? — but you’d be astonished at how frequently agents and editors hear this type of comeback. Without, apparently, anticipating that the response to it will not be particularly gratified, “Well, thanks for filling me in, Noah Webster. Twenty years in publishing, and I had yet to learn the definition of memoir.”

Okay, so most publishing types’ mothers taught them not to be this rude to relative strangers. To the pros, though, any of these replies is perplexing, at best, and at worst, a sign of a complete misunderstanding of how and why anyone not already personally connected with an author might become interested in a memoir.

They have a point, practically speaking. To those who have never tackled the difficult and emotionally-draining task of writing their own stories, it’s well-neigh incomprehensible that anyone hoping to sell a manuscript or proposal could not instantly answer what is, after all, a question any agent representing the book, any editor acquiring the book, any publicist pushing the book, and any reader remotely likely to pick up the book would need to know right off the bat. Surely, having a story to tell is a prerequisite to telling it.

So how could one hope to market a book without knowing what it was about? Heck, how could one hope to write a book without having a clear idea of its story arc?

Actually, those questions puzzle most fiction writers, too, as well as the people that love them. Oh, novelists are not immune to that lengthy hesitation — combined, nine times out of ten, with a gusty sigh — in response to the more general, “So what do you write?” Yet fiction-writers usually manage to follow up with an account that bears at least some embryonic resemblance to the plots of their books.

Astonishingly often, though, memoirists do not — and sometimes seemingly cannot, even if they have already successfully proposed their books. Take Diane, for instance, a courageous memoirist who has recently sold a searing tale of self-revelation to a major publisher; she said that I could share her experience here on condition of changing her name, age, sex, height, weight, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, profession, familial background, and any other identifier that might conceivably render her recognizable to anyone she has ever known. Particularly her book’s acquiring editor.

A truly gifted anecdotalist, Diane has lead a remarkable life (about which I can, of course, tell you nothing); a skilled writer with substantial journalism experience (oops), she is likely to tell it well. Being familiar with how the publishing industry works, she had little trouble pulling together a book proposal, tossing off the requisite marketing materials in three weeks and polishing off a gem of a sample chapter in six. Her agent, Tyrone, fell in love with what was for Diane a new type of writing and was able to sell the book to an eager editor within a remarkably short time to Grace, a very talented editor with a great track record of handling personal memoir with aplomb.

The publication contract specified a not unusually short time in which to complete the manuscript: six months.

Well might you choke, memoirists. At that point, Diane had written only the sample chapter and the first three paragraphs of Chapter 2.

As is all too easy for those new to the game to forget, a book proposal is a job application: the writer makes the case that she is the best person currently occupying the earth’s crust to write a particular book, right? Implicit in that case, however, is the expectation that she will be able to produce that book by a deadline.

None of this was news to Diane, of course, at least not at an intellectual level. She knew that she was a fairly typical position for a first-time memoirist: she would need to write the book she had proposed on a not-unreasonable deadline — or what would have been a reasonable deadline, were advances still large enough to take time off work to complete a writing project. Not necessarily the easiest task in the world, certainly, given that it had taken her six weeks of nights and weekends to compose that nice sample chapter; at the rate she had been writing so far, it would only take another two years to write the book as she had conceived it.

But she did not have two years; she had six months. And Grace had, as acquiring editors of nonfiction so often do, asked for a few changes to the book’s proposed running order. As well as some minor tweaks to the voice.

Does the monumental gasp that just shook a nearby forest indicate that some of you memoirists were not aware that could happen? If so, you’re not alone: since writers so often work in isolation, it’s not at all uncommon for a first-time book proposer to forget (or not to know in the first place) that since the proposal is a job application for the position of writing the book, the publisher hiring the writer generally has the contractual right to ask for changes in that book. And that can be awfully difficult for personal memoirists, who have often spent years working up the nerve to write their life stories in the first place, much less to someone else’s specifications.

Fortunately, Tyrone had experience working with first-time memoirists; he had the foresight to warn Diane before he started circulating the book proposal that the book she had in mind might not be what precisely the acquiring editor would like to see in the published version. So when Diane received the news that Grace felt that the storyline was getting a little lost in the welter of chapters proposed in the Annotated Table of Contents.

“Just stick to the book’s major story arc,” she said, “and we’ll be fine. If this book sells well, we can always work the other material into your next.”

Stop that sighing, memoirists. The furniture in my studio is only battened down to the level appropriate for earthquakes, not hurricanes.

Still, Diane had worked on short deadlines before, and this one was not all that short. Besides, Grace clearly knew what she was talking about; she had spotted a legitimate flaw in the Annotated Table of Contents. Diane hadn’t really thought much about the structure of the book, beyond simply presenting what had happened to her in chronological order. Streamlining her story a little should not be all that hard, right?

Her opinion on the subject shifted slightly over the next three months: writing a personal memoir is notoriously prone to stirring up long-dead emotions. The brain does not seem to make a very great distinction between reliving an event vividly enough to write about it well and living through a current event. Understandably, Diane felt as though she had been going through intensive therapy in her spare time, on a deadline, while holding a full-time job.

Now, Diane saw her previously-manageable task as a gargantuan one. Presuming that she had the stamina to finish drafting the book by her ever-nearing deadline, something she was beginning to doubt was humanly possible, would she be writing it as she wished, or would she simply end up throwing words onto paper? Under those unreasonable circumstances, how could she possibly maintain sufficient perspective on that terrible period of her life to come up with a satisfying dramatic arc? She felt she would be lucky just to get the whole story into a Word file on time.

So she did what most first-time memoirists do: she just wrote the story of that period of her life in chronological order. She wasn’t altogether happy with the manuscript, but she did get it to Grace before the deadline.

Hard to blame her for embracing that tactic, isn’t it? Most of us don’t think of our own lives as having a story arc. We live; things happen; if we’re self-aware, we might occasionally learn something from the process. And when we talk about our lives out loud, that’s not much of a storytelling barrier: verbal anecdotes don’t require much specific detail, character development, or ongoing plot.

Nor does sentence structure typically make or break an anecdote. Summary statements can work just fine. Indeed, it’s not unheard-of for every sentence of a perfectly marvelous anecdote to begin with the phrase I was…

Unfortunately, as Grace pointed out to Diane after the first draft had winged its merry way to the publishing house, that particular type of storytelling, while fine in the right context, just doesn’t fly on the printed page. Memoir readers expect fully fleshed-out scenes, complete with dialogue; too many summary statements back-to-back can start to seem, well, vague. Could the text be more specific?

Then, too, just referring to a major character as my brother was going to get awfully tedious awfully fast for a reader; Diane was going to have to do some character development for the guy. Like, for instance, letting the reader know what he looked like and why, if he lived in Bolivia, he seemed to be dropping by her apartment in Chicago on every ten pages.

Oh, and while Diane was at it, could she be a trifle more choosy about what was and was not important enough to the central story arc to keep on the page? “I raised this concern about the proposal,” Grace pointed out, and rightly. “I know it’s hard to think about yourself as a protagonist in a book, but you have to remember that is how the reader is going to think of you. While a side story might seem vital to how you, a member of your family, or one of your friends would recall this part of your life, you’re not writing the story for people who already know it.”

While this was, from a professional perspective, pretty terrific advice — after all, the art of memoir consists as much in deciding what to leave out as in what to include — Diane felt overwhelmed by it, as well as by her two-month revision deadline. Completely understandable, right? Here she was, frantically rewriting some of her favorite passages and slashing others (oh, her mother would be furious to see her favorite scene in Chapter 5 go!), and now that Grace had forced her to contemplate it, she had to admit that she still had no clear notion of what the overall message of that period of her life was. Why wasn’t it enough to present what actually happened, directly and honestly?

Come to think of it, wasn’t it just a touch dishonest to cut out things that had actually happened? Didn’t she owe it to the reader to give a complete picture, even if that meant boring Grace a little? Wasn’t it compromising her vision as an author to mold her work to the specifications of an editor who was…oh, my God, was Grace asking her to change the story of her life?

Naturally, she wasn’t asking any such thing, as I told Diane when she called me in a panic. Grace, like all conscientious editors, was merely being the reader’s advocate: prodding the writer to make the reading experience as entertaining and absorbing as possible on the printed page.

Need you sigh with such force, memoirists? You just blew my cat across the room. “But Anne,” some of you protest, “doesn’t Diane have a pretty good point here? She had envisioned her story a particular way, crammed with everyday detail. That kind of slice-of-life writing can be very effective: I like a memoir that makes me feel that I’m inhabiting the narrator’s world. So isn’t she right to fight tooth and nail for her earlier draft?”

Ah, that’s often a writer’s first response to professional feedback: to regard it as inherently hostile to one’s vision of the book, rather than as practical advice about how to present that vision most effectively. But that’s usually not what’s going on — and it certainly wasn’t in this case. Grace was genuinely trying to make the book a better read.

And, frankly, she was right about limiting the proportion of the book devoted to depicting Diane’s everyday life vs. the extraordinary events that interrupted it. Grace believed, and with good reason, that as a non-celebrity memoir, the audience for this book would be drawn far more to the dramatic, unique parts of the story than to the parts that dealt with ordinary life. Let’s face it, just as everyday dialogue would be positively stultifying transcribed to the novel page , quite a lot of what occurs in even the most exciting life would not make for very thrilling reading.

Oh, you thought that “Some weather we’re having.” “Yeah. Hot enough for you?” “Sure could use some rain.” was going to win you the Pulitzer? Grace was quite right in maintaining that the art of memoir very largely lies in selecting what to leave out — and that Diane’s very gripping first-person narrative was getting watered down by too many scenes about…

Wait, what were they about? It was hard for the reader to tell; they seemed to be on the page simply because they had happened.

I know, I know: that’s not an entirely unreasonable selection criterion for, say, a blog. As the Internet has demonstrated time and again, people like to get a peek into other people’s lives. That does not mean, however, there’s a huge book-reading audience out there potentially fascinated with what any given writer had for breakfast, his interactions with his cat, and how he sweeps dried mud from his shoes.

Sort of seems like sacrilege to say it, given how the media tends to celebrate the Twitterverse these days, doesn’t it? Yes, there are plenty of venues where it is perfectly acceptable — nay, encouraged — to share even the smallest details of one’s personal life, but by and large, strangers do not pay to find out what Writer X had for lunch today.

Oh, sure, your Facebook friends might like to hear about it, but it’s hard to imagine plowing through 400 pages of printed-out status updates, isn’t it? I hope it has not escaped your notice, memoirists, that by and large, the people vitally interested in those day-to-day specifics are not total strangers, but those who already know you personally.

In case I’m being too subtle here: the no doubt well-deserved loving attention of your kith and kin to the contrary, writing down everything that happens to you seldom works in a book. Real life is too random, and, frankly, it’s lousy at plot development.

Indeed, reality is not always even particularly believable, at least on the page. As Mark Twain liked to say — wow, I’ve been quoting hi a lot lately, have I not? — truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.

Sorry to break that to those of you who had been following those gusty sighs with, “Well, this really happened to me.” Of course it did. You’re writing a memoir. The mere fact that you lived it doesn’t excuse you from making it one heck of a great read, does it?

Or, to put it another way, the simple fact that something really happened does not render it inherently interesting for a reader; that’s the writer’s job. Agents and editors like to say that it all depends on the writing, but for a memoir, I would add that it also depends upon understanding what is and is not essential to the story you’re telling.

The reader does not need to know what every cobblestone on the street looked like in order to be thrilled by the scene when bloodhounds chased you from one end of that street to the other. (Oh, did I bury the lead there? That’s also a pretty common problem in memoir manuscripts: the most important element is hidden in the middle of a paragraph ostensibly about something else. Rather like this piece of advice: annoying for a skimmer, isn’t it?) To entice a reader to keep following a protagonist, real or not, through hundreds of pages, a narrative needs to convey a sense of forward motion based upon dramatic development, not just the progression of time.

“But Anne!” social media enthusiasts shout, and who could blame you? “Celebrities tweet about mundane personal details all the time, and I’ve heard that publicists tell the famous point-blank that posting about real-like activities (especially with pictures!) is one of the best ways to build up a social media following. People like to feel they are in the know — and while we could quibble about whether anything said to People magazine could be construed as private, there’s certainly a demonstrable market for it. So while I agree that quite a lot of it is stultifying, both on the screen and on the printed page, you can’t deny that celebrity memoir often does get down to the what-I-ate-for-breakfast level. And those books sell.”

Good point, enthusiasts, but from a publishing point of view, celebrity memoirs that dwell upon the ordinary sell despite containing ho-hum specifics, not because of them. What causes a reader to pick up the book is already being familiar with the author, at least by reputation. The ability to draw that type of instant recognition is integral to a celebrity author’s platform.

I hear some of you grumbling about how celebrity-chasing limits the number of publishing slots available for non-celebrity memoir, but honestly, public attraction to the private lives of celebrities is hardly a recent development. Cartoons of Marie Antoinette’s alleged palace escapades were hot sellers in the years leading up to the first French Revolution. A satire of Julius Caesar’s relationship with a prince he’d bested in battle enjoyed wide circulation. Cleopatra’s P.R. people worked overtime not to get the word out that, unlike her dim-witted brother, she spoke so many languages that she could conduct treaty discussions with foreign dignitaries herself, but to convince regular folk to regard her as the incarnation of Aphrodite. Just ask the hundreds of spectators who showed up to watch her have dinner on a boat with the earthly embodiment of the war god, Marc Antony.

I venture to say, however, that just because the world is evidently stuffed with people willing to read half a page about a celebrity’s breakfast-eating habits because they hope that the following page will talk about something more glamorous, it does not render that half a page inherently exciting. Unless the celebrity in question happens to wake up one day and decides to consume something genuinely remarkable — like, say, an elephant or the cornerstone to the Chrysler Building — it’s just ordinary stuff.

I say this, incidentally, as someone who regularly gets accosted by biographers trying to find out what certain literary luminaries preferred in a breakfast cereal. Which just goes to show you: the more famous a writer becomes, the more likely he is to be judged by something other than his writing.

There are, of course, quite a few genuinely interesting and well-written celebrity memoirs and biographies; I don’t mean to cast aspersions on those book categories. I’m merely suggesting that it might be quite a bit easier for someone who already has a national platform to get an ordinary breakfast table scene published than it would be for anyone else.

Like, say, Diane. I think that Grace was doing her a favor, actually: most memoir readers would be more critical than she of a memoir that got bogged down in mundanties. When is it better for a writer to hear a hard truth like that, do you think — early enough in the publication process that she can do something about it, or after the book comes out, in the online reviews?

Speaking as a person who would rather identify and nip problems in the bud, rather than the more popular tactics of ignoring them or waiting until they have grown into trees to chop them down, I must admit that I’m a big fan of the former. Yes, it’s nice to hear nothing but praise of one’s writing, but to improve it, trenchant critique is your friend.

Which, I am happy to report, Diane did quickly come to realize. Grace’s revision requests were not unreasonable; they were aimed at making the story they both loved more marketable. Together, they managed to come up with a final version that this reader, at least, found pretty compelling. Streamlined to within an inch of its life.

What may we conclude from Diane’s story? Perhaps nothing; like so many real-life sagas, it may well be just a series of events from which a bystander can learn little. It’s also possible, I suppose, that this tale was just my heavy-handed, editorial-minded way of saying hey, writers, you might want to consider the possibility that your editor is right. It has been known to happen, you know, and far more frequently than revision-wary aspiring writers tend to presume before their work has had the benefit of professional feedback.

No doubt due to my aforementioned fondness for tackling writing problems as soon as they pop their green shoots above ground, I believe that Diane’s problem evolved from that lengthy pause and gusty sigh after being asked, “So what is your book about?” Like the overwhelming majority of first-time memoirists, she simply hadn’t thought about it much — not, that is, until writing on a deadline and to a publishing house’s expectations forced her to contemplate the issue.

So in the interest of saving you chagrin down the line, I ask you, memoirists: what is your book about? What is its essential story arc? And how can you sift through the myriad events of your fascinating life to present it to the reader as fascinating?

Why, yes, those are some mighty big questions, now that you mention it. Would I really be doing your book a favor if I asked easier ones?

To forearm you for the moment that most good memoirists face, the instant when you honestly cannot tell whether a particular detail, scene, or relationship adds to or distracts from your story arc, let me leave you with my favorite memoir-related image. It requires some set-up: while autobiographies consist of what the author can remember (or, as is common for presidential memoir, what ended up in a journal) of a particular period of time, memoir frequently concentrates upon a single life-changing event or decision — and the effects of that occurrence upon one’s subsequent life and world.

Imagine that event or decision as a stone you have thrown into the pond of your life. Show the reader that stone’s trajectory; describe it and the flinging process in as much loving detail as you like. Make the reader feel as though she had thrown it herself. Then, and only then, will you be in a position to figure out which of the ripples on the pond resulted from shying that rock, and which were caused by the wind.

Keep up the good work!

Bringing a memoir to successful publication at an indie press, by Arleen Williams, guest blogger

Hello, campers –
After spending a long, hard few days slogging through the nitty-gritty of how to get a manuscript out the door to an agent or small press — and an even harder couple of days talking about the stresses of doing so — I have an aptly-timed treat for you today, a guest blog on, you guessed it, submitting a memoir to an indie press by one of the bravest memoirists I know, Arleen Williams. Her memoir, THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM, was published recently Blue Feather Press.

Naturally, it takes genuine bravery to write any memoir honestly — speaking as a memoirist myself, I had absolutely no idea how emotionally difficult it is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on a page intended for publication until I did it myself, or, more precisely, until the editor who had acquired it started asking me to change things.

But Arleen’s situation was, unfortunately, the stuff of nightmares: her little sister, Maureen, was murdered by the worst serial killer in American history. In case any of you missed my enthusiastic cheers when the book came out last April, here is the official blurb:

The Green River murders were headline news throughout the 1980s. By the time the perpetrator was sentenced in 2003, at least 48 young women had met an untimely death at his hands. What started as as string of local killings in Seattle became a national nightmare before it was over. In homes all across America, television news programs and newspapers large and small carried feature stories about the ever-growing list of victims.

Now imagine that during this time, someone you love — your baby sister, a beautiful young woman of 19 — suddenly goes missing. The police are at best unhelpful, and at worst, seemingly uninterested in what’s happened to her. And then comes word you hoped you’d never receive: your youngest sister’s remains have been found. She is yet another victim of the Green River killer. With amazing candor, Arleen Williams tells the story of her family’s journey, before and after the Green River killer murdered her sister Maureen and left her body in a stretch of wilderness off the west side of Highway 18.

What amazed me about Arleen’s memoir is that instead of approaching this horror as true crime — which, frankly, would probably have been easier to write — she embeds the reader in her family’s dynamics in the years leading up to Maureen’s disappearance, as well as after, making their sense of disorientation and loss achingly present. Intriguingly, their interactions are not at all the sanitized, made-for-TV-type family dynamics readers have come to expect from third-hand accounts, but a micro-culture of selective recognition and unanticipated temporary banishments for minor infractions that renders the family strangely equipped — and painfully unequipped — to deal with Maureen’s permanent disappearance.

I don’t want to give too much away, of course, but let me tell you, denial has seldom been so fascinating.

(For a more extensive peek into the memoir’s world, there’s a video about it on her website. And in case you’re wondering, THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM may be purchased directly from the publisher, Blue Feather Press, or on Amazon. If you happen to live in the southeastern portion of this fine country, you may have Arleen sign a copy for you at her upcoming readings:

Wordsmiths, Decatur, Georgia
December 15, 7:30 pm

Vino Loco, Englewood, Florida
December 20, 4 pm

I just mention.)

Remember how I was saying yesterday that it often takes a long time for even an excellent manuscript to see print? I believe that Arleen is going to have a thing or two to say about that. Aspiring memoirists will find this guest post helpful, too, as will anyone out there considering working with a small press.

But mostly, I’m thrilled to post this because, frankly, those of you who are writing on dark topics couldn’t possibly hope for a better-suited advice-giver. Please join me, then, in welcoming Arleen Williams as today’s guest blogger.

Take it away, Arleen!

How did a middle-aged straight woman get a memoir published by a small press with a lesbian fiction focus? This is a question I am often asked in one form or another. It’s a sort of how and why question, I suppose. So here’s the answer I tell readers and fellow writers alike: it took relentless determination and a whole lot of luck.

I wrote a story that I felt needed to be told. I took the classes and followed the rules – buying how-to books, reading blogs like this one, honing my query letter, going to conferences. I sent out over fifty agent queries. The responses ranged from harshly impersonal to expressions of heartfelt sorrow for my loss.

What they all shared was that note of rejection. Some included comments suggesting that I make the book more about my sister’s murderer, about the Green River case. Others claimed readers didn’t want a story told from a victim’s perspective.

So what to do? I wasn’t writing true crime or thriller. I wasn’t willing to change from the memoir format that I had chosen. I had two alternatives: self-publish or find an independent press. I opted for the latter and started querying every publisher listed in Writer’s Market that accepted memoir and unagented manuscripts.

After nine months of sending out queries and enduring rejections, I got lucky. I was offered a contract, but my luck ran out again when the company holding my contract was bought out before my book was published.

Unwilling to give up, stubborn determination came into play. I contacted the new company and asked if they intended to honor my contract. That was when my love affair with small, independent publishers began. I was able to talk with them, actually e-mail and get prompt responses.

And they wanted my memoir. Why?

Curious, I asked Emily Reed, co-owner of Blue Feather Books, Ltd., that same question. Why would a small niche publisher of predominately lesbian lit want a straight memoir? Simple answer: they liked it and they thought they could sell it. They publish books by women and for women. They were willing to take a chance on me.

I cannot say enough positive about working through the pre-publication revision and editing process with a small press. It was one-on-one, personal and real. I have developed a lifelong friendship with an editor who lives across the country from me. Jane Vollbrecht (my editor for The Thirty-Ninth Victim) and I will meet for the first time later this month when I do a reading in her city. Our relationship developed through respect, honesty and her willingness to share her story with me as we edited my own.

For the final line-by-line editing, Caitlin d’Aguiar, another of Blue Feather’s owners, and I met for a nine- or ten-hour marathon at a roadside Denny’s halfway between her home and my own. Again, it was personal and real. I have never worked with a New York publisher or an agent of any kind, but I’ve had conversations with many authors and their experiences seem to be very different from my own.

It sounds rosy, doesn’t it? The communication and connection. The e-mail, phone and face-to-face interaction with editor and publishers, but there is a downside to working with a small independent press.

Isn’t there always a downside?

I’ve always written, scribbling in journals for as long as I can remember, and like most, I write because I must, because it’s in my blood, because it’s my way of processing my world. When I began to write The Thirty-Ninth Victim in fall 2001, the thought of publication did not enter into the equation. I wrote because I needed to write. Nothing more. Later, when a draft began to take shape, it was a pair of dedicated teachers – Robert Ray and Jack Remick – who encouraged me to pursue publication, who felt that I had a body of work worthy of publication.

I explain all of this only to say that like most, I write for me, I write because I love to write. Never, in all my years of writing, in my wildest dreams, did I see myself in the role of book seller. And yet, that is precisely the role one falls into by publishing with a small press, particularly a press that does print-on-demand (POD) sales.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you won’t be promoting your own book if you publish with a large New York house. Of course you will. Publishers have extremely limited promotional budgets, the bulk of which goes into promoting a very small number of pet projects. Most small presses have little to no promotional budget.

In both cases, most authors are on their own to promote their book, to set up bookstore and library readings, to secure media and on-line coverage. In short, to be their own (or to hire) publicity person. In that sense, publishing with a large or small house doesn’t differ much.

The difference lies in how a book is printed and distributed. Many small publishers, including my own, operate on a POD basis. It’s the only way they can survive economically, and yet because of this, most of the large bookstores won’t carry their books. If bookstores can’t purchase large orders with guaranteed buy back, they don’t buy.

For that reason, if you were to go into any major book retailer and request The Thirty-Ninth Victim, they’d be happy to order a copy for you, but you won’t find it on the shelves or on one of those wonderful tables displaying new books. A bookstore browser, a holiday shopper, will never see my book.

Though I didn’t know any of this when I signed my first publishing contract, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. I was tired of rejection, and I was thrilled, as most writers are, to simply land a contract. In the intervening months since my memoir was released, I have become PR person, public speaker and book seller – all roles I never imagined for myself.

The selling part is the hardest for me. If your book is in bookstores, your role is limited to publicity. But when bookstores are unwilling to stock your book, you turn to the indie stores and often enter the world of consignment sales. You find yourself weighing the cost of the books you must purchase from your publisher against the odds of being able to sell them. You finding yourself setting prices based on your break even point in a feeble attempt to stop bleeding money. And you begin asking yourself if selling your book will ever become more than an expensive hobby.

So I’m not saying there’s a huge difference between the author’s role in promoting a book published by a large house vs. a small press, but I am saying that it is harder if your book is POD. In that case, it is essential to rely on your personal and professional networks to get word out about your work.

Along those lines, I want to thank Anne Mini for her invitation to do this guest entry on her blog. I appreciate the opportunity to share my experiences with Anne’s readers and, of course, to invite you to visit my website to learn more about my work.

I sent my first agent query in March 2004. Wide-eyed, naïve and full of hope. The Thirty-Ninth Victim was released in April 2008. It was a long journey – one I am honored to have had the opportunity to take. I wish you all the best on your own publishing journeys.

Arleen Williams has been recording her life in journals since she left home in her late teens. Her wanderings took her to Mexico City, where she completed a bachelor’s degree through the University of California while earning a teaching certificate from the National University of Mexico. Arleen has been teaching the English language for over thirty years. She taught international students living in dorms in Seattle, and migratory workers in her living room in Santa Cruz, California. In Caracas, Venezuela, she faked an Irish accent in order to land a position at the British Embassy School, and in Mexico City, her high school students encircled her for her protection during an anti-American protest.

In 1984, the disappearance of her youngest sister brought her back to Seattle. Later, she completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Washington and accepted the teaching position she still holds at South Seattle Community College. For the past fifteen years, she and her husband have been remodeling a small 1941 home in West Seattle, where they have raised their only daughter. The Thirty-Ninth Victim is her first book.

My Path to Publication (so far) by guest blogger Thomas Norman DeWolf


Today, I am pleased to present the last of my holiday treats for all of the members of the Author! Author! community, and let me tell you, it’s a peach. Longtime blog reader Thomas DeWolf, whose fascinating book, Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History will be coming out January 9th (congratulations again, Tom!), has graciously given into my blandishments and agreed to share his experiences with us. He has even — brace yourselves — agreed to give us an author’s-eye view of what happened when throughout the publication process.

Pretty great, eh?

A couple of years ago, Tom was precisely where so many of the members of our little community are: he had a good manuscript to pitch, but was new to the publishing industry. Through a willingness to learn the ropes, persistence, and having a heck of a good story to tell, he was able to bring his book to publication.

He is living proof, in short, that it IS possible — and Tom has very kindly agreed to take the time during the INCREDIBLY busy last weeks before publication to tell us about it. (To give a tangible sense of just how busy he must be right now, and thus what a kindness this is: I have it on pretty reliable authority that Amazon has already started shipping the presale copies.)

So please join me in thanking him for joining us. Take it away, Tom!


Thank you, Anne, both for announcing the upcoming publication of my book, Inheriting the Trade, and for inviting me to write this “guest blog” for your site. Based on your message that your readers appreciate hearing about the post-contract phase of the publication process, here’s the condensed version of my experience so far:

For several years, as I dreamed of holding a hardbound book with my name inscribed on the cover and spine for the first time, I did my best to figure out how others successfully navigated the confusing, sometimes twisted path to publication. I attended trade shows to rub elbows with authors. I went to author readings and watched them on C-Span’s Book TV. I read about them. I asked for advice. I tried not to be too obnoxious, but occasionally probably was (sorry about shoving my children’s book manuscript into your hands, Richard Bach, I trust that the bruises have healed…).

My path over the past couple of years included attending both the American Society of Journalists and Authors’ annual writing conference in New York in April 2006 and the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s annual conference in Seattle in July that same year. I couldn’t afford it. I went anyway. Prior to PNWA I found Anne Mini’s blog through her “resident writer” posts on the PNWA website. In addition to the helpful hints on writing in general—and my focus on query letters and book proposals specifically—I paid close attention to her profiles on agents. Based on the subject matter of my book I felt that about a dozen agents scheduled to attend the upcoming PNWA conference might be interested in my work. Rather than wait to approach them at the conference or after, I sent a query letter to each of them two weeks in advance of the conference. Approximately half of them responded to me before the conference began! All but one eventually asked to see my book proposal.

July 2006: At the conference, I took advantage of the Pitch Practicing Palace (sorry to learn it is no longer available), met every agent I could, or at least attended workshops where they were on the panel so I could confirm my impressions of their suitability for my book. I rewrote my book proposal for the umpteenth time and, after I returned home, sent it to the dozen agents who requested it.

September 2006: Within two months (and 16 rejections) after the conference, I received a call from Lauren Abramo, an agent with Dystel and Goderich Literary Management in New York who had attended PNWA. She offered to represent me (a moment’s pause while I relive my joyful scream… Yahoo! Okay, continue…).

After revising my book proposal to fit DGLM’s standards, Lauren sent copies to twenty publishers. In March 2007, I signed a contract with Beacon Press in Boston (pause again, more briefly due to looming deadlines… Yee-HAW! Okay, back to work…) and immediately began working with my editor, Gayatri Patnaik, to revise my manuscript. I understood that the typical publication timeframe, from contract to bookshelf, was at least 12-18 months. Beacon’s commitment with me was to have my book published in 10 months so that Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History would be available in time to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United States (which occurred in January 1808).

My completed manuscript ran approximately 450 pages. My contract called for no more than 350 pages. Though I agreed to the page limit, I’d already pared it down, over many, many rewrites and edits, from my original 1500 page manuscript (I know, I know, ridiculous, huh?), and couldn’t see how I could remove another 100 pages without cutting the heart out of my story.

March 20, 2007: Eleven days after reaching verbal agreement on a contract with Beacon Press (and one day after actually signing), I received the first half of my manuscript, along with comments from my editor, Gayatri. I actually didn’t even freak out. Yes, I realized, she’s cut a third of the first half of my book away. Yes, some of my favorite moments were gone. But I could see where she was headed. She has a vision for my book. This is going to work, I thought.

Then I received the second half of the manuscript with the rest of her comments. Now I freaked out. Key sections were eliminated. My last chapter, my favorite chapter in the whole book: gone. We talked. Gayatri explained that my book is her baby now, too. I need to trust her. She knows what she’s doing and part of her job is to protect me from myself. I had to think about that one for a bit.

Over the course of six weeks, we went through three complete revisions. Initially, first-timer that I am, I feared that the role of an editor was to simply take my work, cut-fix-shift-add-revise-submit-print it, and I would lose control over my work. That was not the case at all. I did as much writing in those six weeks as I had done the previous six months. Gayatri didn’t rewrite my manuscript. She told me what I needed to do to make the story work effectively. We cut sections, rewrote others, and added new ones. My 450 page manuscript that I agreed to cut down to 350 became 272. To this day I remain amazed at how that happened without my realizing it until after the fact. And even with all my “babies” we killed, I am pleased with our final manuscript.

May 2, 2007: My talk-every-day-sometimes-several-times-each-day routine with Gayatri abruptly halted. She handed me over to others for the next phase of the process and she moved on to other books. Copyediting is something completely foreign to me. Grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure are not my strong suits. But I’m learning. The manuscript was sent to the copyeditor hired by Beacon Press. She would copyedit the entire manuscript, and I would get it back, within three weeks. I sent the un-copyedited version of my newly revised (and incredibly thin!) manuscript to five others who are close to the project for their final input and fact-checking.

May 23, 2007: I received the copyedited manuscript and was given two weeks to review it, accept or reject proposed changes, and resolve any queries from the copyeditor. This would also be my last opportunity to make other necessary changes before the book was to be typeset. I read the manuscript three complete times, focusing on different aspects of the story each time (first, simple flow; second, making sure story arcs and character actions are complete and questions raised are all answered; third, nit-pick the details). I also learned a trick while reading Neil Gaiman’s website. He’s a heckuva blogger. I did a word search to check for “ly.” Most adverbs end in “ly” and this is a great way to locate and destroy them. The two new red pencils Beacon Press sent me to mark up the manuscript ended up as nubs. I returned the marked up (so much red; felt a bit like blood) pages to Beacon Press on June 6.

July 18, 2007: The fully-designed, typeset galleys for my book arrived via FedEx. I spent all day, every day for the next two weeks, proofreading my book. Four others agreed to proofread it as well and let me know what they found.

July 31, 2007: I returned the galleys to Beacon Press with approximately 55 proposed corrections and/or alterations that I felt were important and necessary for my book. And that was it. Other than responding to a few specific questions that resulted in a few more minor changes, I was finished writing my book.

August – October, 2007: I was surprised when my agent called to tell me she had sold the audio rights to Inheriting the Trade to Brilliance Audio (third brief pause to celebrate… Yippee!). Since my book is a memoir, I didn’t want anyone else’s voice narrating it but me. Brilliance agreed to allow me to audition for them. I downloaded some recording software to my computer and narrated the preface and first chapter along with an introduction that explained why I was the only logical choice to narrate my own work. Brilliance agreed and flew me to their studios in October where I worked with a director and an engineer to record my book over the course of three days. The audio version of Inheriting the Trade will be available at the same time the hardcover hits bookshelves in January.

The vast majority of my time since July has been dedicated to the business side of my book’s publication. I work closely with my publicist at Beacon Press to coordinate my book tour With strong support from James Perry, one of my distant cousins and fellow travelers in this journey who also happens to be quite savvy with computer technology (a trait I completely lack), we created a website and blog. I’ve read books on publicity (The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity and Publicize Your Book), media training (Media Training A-Z), and “buzz” (Unleashing the Idea Virus and Building Buzz).

I’ve made contact with people in the media I know and have asked friends and colleagues to send me contact information on reporters they know, all of which I pass along to my publicist as she prepares to send press kits and review copies of my book to media outlets, large and small, around the country (with emphasis on cities I’ll visit on tour). My publicist is working to set up television, radio, and newspaper interviews wherever she can as soon as the book is published. I’m working on an Op-Ed that she wants to submit for publication. The variety of ways to publicize my book seems almost endless.

I’ve heard stories quite different from my experience. Working with Beacon Press has been as close to perfect as I can imagine. I have received support and advice from other people in this industry (including some gracious agents and editors that rejected my proposal) that has proven quite valuable to my journey. I’ll do my best to share more about my experience (as it unfolds) on my own blog and hope that it will provide those who share the dream of getting published with a few tidbits now and then that I hope will prove useful.

One additional thought for writers and aspiring writers: part of the business of writing is finding ways to raise the visibility of your work and you. If someone asks you to write a guest blog, and it is appropriate to your work or subject matter, you graciously comply. Then you provide a link to your own blog. And you write a post in your own blog that links to the guest post you’ve written. Hopefully, other bloggers will then write about your “guest blog” on their own sites; all of which contributes to increasing the visibility of your web presence and spreads the word about your book while also helping raise the visibility of the blogs you’re linking to. If you are learning about me and my book, Inheriting the Trade, for the first time here you’ve just experienced all the evidence you need that what I’ve just explained works.

Thanks again, Anne. It’s been great reconnecting. I wish you all the best and send kudos your way for keeping up your amazing blog that helps other writers in so many ways.

Thanks, Tom, and best of luck on your book!