The Trope Police

Hello, friends! How’s the writing going?

Every so often on Twitter I offer some Query Trends, which are multiple instances of oddly specific things I see in my queries. Lately I’ve been thinking of trends on a larger scale. Not just genre trends, which come and go and come back again seemingly at random, but rather writing trends that I officially see as cliche.

So, what am I seeing that I’d love to see go away (or, at the very least, become severely lessened)?

 

Teenage girls who are super into photography.

Putting aside that the majority of “photography” is being done on iPhones with Snapchat and Instagram filters, let’s talk about this very impractical and expensive hobby that every teenage girl (and some boys!), regardless of background or economic status, seem to have. And not just a vague interest in photography – a full-on I will buy this sophisticated camera with various lenses and walk around with them all the time obsession. I see this in YA most often, but I also see it in Adult fiction with teen characters and, more recently, in the TV show Casual and the movie, Boyhood.

I’ll repeat how expensive of a hobby this is. It’s really expensive. These characters aren’t settling for point-and-shoot digital cameras. They have some serious equipment and in a lot of cases, these are characters specified as decidedly not rich. How are they paying for all of this?

Expenses aside, this hobby often feels forced. Has the “wannabe writer” cliche played out so photography was next “artsy” career path in line? It feels only mildly realistic and for as many teens legitimately interested in technique, I would guess that far more take selfies with friends at parties and call it a day.

We get it; your main character sees the world through a unique lens. But unless they’re Veronica Mars, and photography also comes in handy in their secret side job, consider that you’re possibly using a cliche for no real reason.

 

Powerful women as a technicality (or gimmick).

Regardless of what happens in November, I hope Hillary Clinton’s candidacy will help make a trope I hate finally go awayand that is the Female Character Falling Ass Backwards Into Power. My literal examples are all TV-related:

  • Veep, Male president resigns, female VP rises
  • Commander In Chief, Male president dies, female VP rises
  • Battlestar Gallactica, Everyone in the line of succession dies, female Sec. of Education becomes president (and is amazing, of course, but still)

Seriously, did no one think a woman could just, ya know, get elected? All by herself. Can’t we have even a fictional world where the people chose a woman voluntarily and not because a male option was dead? (But I digress…)

In not-so-literal examples, some trends I’ve noticed in submissions are:

  • Female athlete who learned everything from her dad, who may or may not be the coach of her team too.
  • Battle of the Sexes science fairs or class president elections.
  • Propelled into the plot because of a missing father.
  • Propelled into the plot because her father is the doctor/detective/scientist directly involved in the story.

In each of these stories, the girl is in the shadow of a more powerful man, and then – and only then – can she find her inner strength. It takes an “anything you can do, I can do better” approach to feminism that feels outdated.

I’d love to see a female athlete who trains with her Olympic medal winning mother. Or a lawyer (or future lawyer) who was inspired by Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Where’s my teenage Leslie Knope? Where’s my Katniss as an adult? Give me someone who isn’t just propelled into the plot, but drives the plot.

 

The “wild” best friend.

If Writer-Sarah may admit something up front – I’ve totally written the wild best friend story. Most of us who grew up to become writers probably had the wild best friend. I actually love the wild best friend. From Rayanne Graff in My So-Called Life to Lila in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. The complexities of friendship, in general, are always interesting to me. That said…

I’ve been noticing two different types, in published books and in even more manuscripts, usually dependent on gender:

  • Girls/Women: The friend who lives without fear of consequence. She says what she’s thinking, she flirts, she’s reckless, and she’s probably a little damaged. She pushes the main character to live life to the fullest and go beyond her comfort zone.
  • Boys/Men: The horndog. The slacker. He makes sexist comments, he gets high, he thinks the main character just needs to relax. He’s the id to the main character’s ego.

Both are cautionary tales. Both serve as windows and mirrors for the main character.

So if I love these types of stories so much, why am I sick of them?

Because they’re all starting to sound the same. In YA, it’s the best friend pulling the main character into a plot, teaching them things about life. In Adult, it’s the best friend who remains so in-name-only even though it’s obvious the main character outgrew them. They become a symbol for The Road Not Taken as opposed to being actual people.

Why else am I sick of these friends?

Because I am SO ready for the “wild best friend” to be our main character! They are clearly the more interesting friend. They deserve more than teaching the main character a valuable lesson, or making the main character feel better about their “boring” life. They deserve to have their own story told.

***

I’ve said before (here) that it’s OK if you’re not completely original. Premises are always going to sound similar; it’s how you interpret them and make them your own that counts. So, sure, a few tropes might slip in and no one will care if the rest of the book is amazing and unique. Cliches aren’t the worst thing in the world, but for a debut author they can be the difference between an offer and a rejection.

 

(OK, if the only thing holding me back in a manuscript is an overused character trope, I’ll probably opt for having a conversation with the author or asking for an R&R.)

 

Keep writing, friends! When your photography-loving main character goes to search for her missing photojournalist dad and takes her wild best friend with her, remember we’re still rooting for you! But maybe just tone it down a bit. 🙂

Agents, Schmagents, and Pink Flags

Hi there.

I’m not sure if you saw the #SchmagentRedFlags hashtag on Twitter this week, but if you’re a writer who is agented or querying agents, you should check it out. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “schmagent” is short-hand for agents who are not very legit or respected in the industry. I wrote about them a while back in this post: Shady Business.

The hashtag shared some good insights and tips to new writers. But then I got involved in a conversation that made me pause. An agent – a legit, respected agent (not a schmagent) – said if an agency hasn’t done a deal with every Big 5 publisher, they aren’t legit. I agreed and disagreed with this, but it didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Twitter was not going to be the right venue for me to say things without thinking first, so I left it alone.

My initial response was that some agencies are just super small and niche, but I kept circling back to new agents (which are not the same as schmagents, as you’ll see in my older post linked above!). So, I conceded her point and let it go because I did agree with her. Mostly, anyway. But I kept thinking about it after. Do agents need to have an established boilerplate with every Big 5 publisher in order to be considered legit? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed outdated to me.

It is 100% an advantage for an agent to have established relationships with as many bona fide publishers as possible, especially the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster). If you’re a writer who gets an offer of representation, you should ask that agent who they have established relationships with and where they’ve sold projects similar to yours. If they don’t mention the major players at all, that might be a problem.

But, not every agency is the same, nor are the needs of all writers the same. Such as:

A 10-year-old agency specializes in only children’s literature. They’re known for several award-winning books and a few bestselling authors through publishers like Scholastic, Candlewick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and have had success with a few imprints at Big 5 publishers. But, for whatever reason, they have never sold a book to Hachette. Maybe they got close, but never got an offer from them. Maybe they went with another publisher during an auction. In any case, after 10 years, they still don’t have a boilerplate with one of the Big 5. Are they considered a schmagent? I would hope not, and I would hope that a children’s book writer getting an offer from an agent with that agency would jump on the opportunity.

A similarly hypothetical agency could be one that’s been around for about 5 years and focuses on romance, and maybe some erotica and NA too. In only a short period of time, they’ve established important relationships with places like Harlequin and Kensington and are known for a few successful series within those genres. They might also find they work with mostly digital publishers these days because that’s where the market has shifted. Therefore, they might not really have had a need to sell to all 5 major publishers. A good agent follows the market they’re trying to sell to. They keep up with industry trends. Agents need to be open and adaptable, and if certain genres aren’t as big in print anymore, we need to adjust accordingly.

One last example I was thinking about are the quiet literary novels. Not Franzen or the big splashy Great American Novelist literary novels. I mean the ones that get critical acclaim and are brilliantly written, but the average reader probably hasn’t heard of them, nor do they care. You see these novels with places like Graywolf Press, Melville House, National Book Award committee discussions, and, well, these novels, basically. There are a few dedicated and amazing imprints with Big 5 publishers who still seek quiet literary fiction. They publish it well and put marketing dollars behind them, but an agent can’t rely on a few imprints to sell a book and then call it a day if that handful of editors pass on it. Sometimes books like this are a labor of love, and writers should want an agent who knows how to effectively sell their work even if it isn’t a 6-figure deal with Penguin Random House every single time.

So, those were my larger-than-Twitter thoughts about this and I’d be curious what others think in the comments. Mostly, I just think the industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and the fact that we say The Big Five instead of the The Big Six should be evidence that agents can and should diversify their submission lists and establish new relationships in the industry.

Like I said before, a relationship with the major players is still a key component to being a good agent. But maybe it’s not everything after all. Maybe it’s not a red flag so much as a pink flag. Maybe in another five years we’ll have The Big Four, and even if we end up with The Big Three it won’t mean publishing is dying or dead or any other nonsense like that. It just means everyone involved needs to look outside the “model” and realize it might not exist anymore, so what’s next?

Conferences: A Cheat Sheet

I’m a big fan of writer’s conferences. I went to two last month, have one coming up this month, and another in August. Last year I went to nine of them (which, I admit, contributed to my slight burn-out by the end of 2012). I like meeting writers from other parts of the country. I like seeing other parts of the country. And I like knowing that even in the smallest of towns far, far away from Big Literary New York City, there are tight communities that care just as much about the craft of writing as they do about the business of getting published.

No matter where and what conference I attend, there are always similarities among the writers. I’ve gotten quite good at knowing who is ready for publication and who still needs time to find their voice, as eager as they may be. Of course, the best times are when writers surprise me.

In 2011, I wrote a post on how to pitch to an agent at conferences, or rather, how not to pitch. Since then I’ve been to a lot more conferences and met a lot more writers. More than just pitching to an agent, here are a few tips to keep in mind when attending a writer’s conference:

1. You Will Not Leave a Conference With an Offer of Representation
OK, I’ll say you will very very rarely get an offer of rep at a conference because I’m sure there have been exceptions to this rule somewhere. But, 99.9% of the time, you will not get this offer at the actual conference. Going to a conference based on who the faculty will be is great, but keep in mind that even if your dream agent (which you should not have!) attends, he or she still needs to read your work before making an offer. Your pitch, premise, and overall demeanor could be perfect all weekend, and you may even make a personal connection with the agent of your choice, but that doesn’t mean we can magically pull a contract out of our back pockets. Your job is to pitch your project to an agent. Even if they say “yes,” that “yes” is usually followed by “send me your query and sample pages.” I’ve had writers stare at me blankly even after I told them to send me material, as if they expected more from me. Do you really want an agent who doesn’t even read your work first? No.

2. A Conference is For Learning
Meeting agents and editors is great, but the main reason to attend a conference is to learn. Conferences provide more than just pitch sessions. Agents and editors often critique work, and the organizers of the conference offer several excellent seminars and workshops for writers to attend. It’s about learning the craft, learning the business, and learning that just because you finished your novel doesn’t mean it’s ready for publication.

3. Writer-Friends Are Valuable
Regional conferences are the best way to meet other writers in your area. Your friends and family can provide all the support in the world, and a few of them may even be skilled enough to read your work objectively. But writer-friends? They are a special breed. They can turn into Real Friends, but unlike your non-writer friends, they know exactly what you’re going through. They’re going through it too. They know what writer’s block is; they know what querying is like; they know the hell that is the revision process. Having them in close proximity means you can also get offline and grab a drink (or a cupcake) with them, which is just as important as sharing your work sometimes.

4. No One is Forcing You to Attend a Conference
Conferences are expensive. Organizers need to pay for the location, provide meals, cover travel and hotel costs for faculty, and a lot of other minor expenses that add up. That means you, the writer, have to pay to attend. You get quite a bit for your money, but it’s still your money. Remember that you volunteered it for the opportunity to be there. It’s amazing how many writers yawn their way through seminars, become defensive over critiques, and ask questions such as “what good is an agent anyway?” during Q&A sessions. It makes one wonder, why are you even here???

5. Agents and Editors are People Too
Please treat us with respect. This post at From the Write Angle is one to bookmark and memorize about this point. Also, understand that the time to pitch your book is not when we are chewing our food or going to the bathroom. Thanks. 🙂

How many of you have attended writer’s conferences? What do you wish you knew about them before you attended that you know now?

Shady Business

So, earlier this week via The Twitter, agent (and author!), Mandy Hubbard mentioned her distrust of new agents who have no publishing background. This started a conversation, which I participated in, about the merits of these agents and start-up publishers who claim to be legit.

The thing is, many of these new agents and start-up publishers (usually digital-only publishers) aren’t aware they’re not legit. They have the best of intentions. They’re people who follow the industry closely and, because of the transparency provided by blogs and Twitter, they think they have enough information to start their own companies. Yes, everyone has to start somewhere and some of these newbies do succeed and prove their worth. Most of them, however, don’t help an author rise to any level beyond what the author could have done themselves.

When I started at Curtis Brown, I was an assistant and only an assistant. I also kept up with industry news and market trends, but mostly I was an apprentice at an established agency where I had several agents to learn from. Before that I was an intern at a different agency and read the hell out of the slush pile. Reading the slush pile and writing reader’s reports for agents seems like busy work, but here is what I learned from it: In my first year as an intern, what I put in the “yes” pile was usually not what the agent would have said yes to, and more importantly I learned why. My experience is very, very common among agents at my level and those at the levels above mine. Reading someone else’s slush pile is a very helpful rite of passage.

If I took on clients within that first year of working in publishing, nothing I took on would have sold, I wouldn’t even have seen a contract until it was my own client’s, and I would not have known how to negotiate in my author’s best interest. Every agency is different in terms of when they let assistants take on clients, but those decisions are always based on “is this person ready?” New agents who don’t have that kind of experience in publishing, but just want to take on clients to “help authors get published” don’t get that feedback or education. This is why, despite their good intentions, they end up hurting authors.

New agents at established agencies, or those who have publishing experience elsewhere, are hungry to build their lists and you should definitely query them. Put them at the top of your lists, actually. But pay attention to the backgrounds of these new agents too. If they don’t have the backing of an established agency, then Google deeper and ask the following questions:

1. Do they belong to the AAR (Association of Authors’ Representatives)? Note: Not every agent needs to join the AAR and I know a few at established agencies who have not joined, or just recently joined. However, if you’re on the fence about an agent and their credentials seem suspicious, not being a member of the AAR could be a dealbreaker.
2. How long have they worked in publishing? If they weren’t always an agent, what did they do before? Editor at a major house? Marketing or sales representative (meaning, they know what booksellers buy and would probably be a good agent because of it)? Were they an assistant or intern at an agency that’s respected in the industry?

3. How long have they been agenting? It should not be the same amount of time they’ve been in publishing. If they are just starting out, who do they work for? What type of agency is backing them up? 
4. What have they sold? If they’re new, this won’t be as relevant because they may not have many sales to their name yet. In this case, ask new agents where they see your book in the market. Hardcover/trade paperback vs. mass market vs. ebook only? These things matter, and knowing which format will work best for your book is something a good agent should be able to tell you. 
5. What types of publishers have they sold to? Check Publisher’s Marketplace to see an agent’s sales history. Note: Not every agent reports their deals, but new agents usually do because they are still proving themselves. So, look them up. Are they only selling to the types of publishers you could have submitted to yourself? Or do they have a few Big 6 and larger, respected indie publishers in their sales history too?
6. Are they just a lawyer? Agents are like combination lawyers and managers, and you need those skills to be good at your job. The difference is that a lawyer has no personal stake in whether your book does well (they’ll get paid either way) and their ability to read legal language rarely extends to book contracts, which is a different animal. If you self-publish or use a small press without an agent, make sure you get someone to read over your contract who is a literary lawyer. People who know legal jargon, as intelligent and educated as they are, aren’t going to have the same expertise when it comes to publishing.

I also mentioned start-up publishers above. If you choose not to get an agent – either because you’re going to self-publish or use smaller publishers who take unagented manuscripts – then you need to be extra careful. Like I said, start-up publishers can turn into legit publishers who are good at what they specialize in. They’re often digital-only, at least at first, and tend to focus on a specific genre to build up a successful niche market. Note: This is what a good start-up publisher will do. Be wary of small presses, digital-only publishers, or start-ups who want everything and anything. Usually this means they haven’t created a solid business model or know the best way to publish different types of books.

If you’re unsure about whether to sign that contract or submit to that shiny new publisher at all, don’t be afraid to ask the publisher the following questions:

1. Do you content edit or just copy-edit? Copy-editing is ridiculously important, but so is editing for the content itself. Will your book get Big 6 treatment at a small press? It won’t go through as many revision rounds and maybe only one set of eyes (as opposed to several you get at large houses) will see it. But, that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a professional editor with a skilled eye who will make your book the best it can be.

2. What is your marketing plan for my book? They should have one, and it should involve more than a Facebook ad. 
3. Where are your books sold? If the publisher is digital-only, ask them what platforms they use and if your book will be available on multiple reading devices. If they do print books as well, ask them if they’ve ever been sold through Barnes & Noble (the physical stores) or independent local bookstores (unlikely, but worth asking).
4. Will any part of this process cost me any money, other than the royalties you will earn on my sales? Answer: NO! NO, NO, NO! If a publisher wants you to pay them, run away. They are a scam. Real publishers pay you for the privilege to publish your book. 
5. How much are you taking in royalties? The answer to this question varies, but what you’re really asking is “are you doing enough for my book to warrant taking over half my earnings?” Because if they’re only doing the bare minimum and you’re not seeing a significant return in your sales, you could have self-published and kept almost all of your royalties instead.
6. What’s the deal with your subrights department? Subrights matter. It’s how you earn back an advance faster and audio, film, serial, and foreign rights are how you get your book in more places. Most small or start-up publishers won’t have a significant presence in the film world, but if they are going to call themselves a publisher, they should be aware of foreign markets and work with specific agents or scouts to sell your book abroad.

If any of these questions make a publisher nervous, don’t use them. These are simple questions they should not only answer, but be proud to tell you. Of course, they are trying to woo you. Tell you what you need to hear. So, go a step further and research:

1. Go to sites like Preditors and EditorsFind out what other books they’ve published. Have they had success in your genre? Do they have any specialties? A good publisher has standards.

2. Where have their books actually been sold? Can you find them anywhere other than Amazon?
3. Do they have a Publisher’s Marketplace page with reported deals? Note: This does not necessarily make them legit (as is more eloquently stated in this blog post by legit agent, Victoria Marini). But! It at least gives you a starting off point to see what types of deals this publisher has made. 
4. Who are their other authors? Contact them directly to ask about their experience. The publisher should also willingly give you their authors’ information if you can’t find it online. If they don’t, then that’s another red flag and you should be suspicious of them.

Yes, this is a lot of work. It’s less work if you have an agent, but if you don’t want or need an agent, be prepared. It’s incredibly tempting to sign a contract because YAY BOOK DEAL!!! You’ve been waiting forever for this. All those rejections were piling up and you were getting so frustrated and ready to quit, but OMG this publisher sees the brilliance of your book and finally all is well in the world! Yes, of course you will want to sign immediately. This is what shady publishers and shady agents are counting on.

This whole process is hard. Whether it’s you looking for a good agent or agents looking for a good small publisher (we use them too!). An easy way out only makes it harder in the long run. My job is to protect authors’ rights and make sure their books are getting the treatment they deserve. Which is why agents like Mandy and Victoria, and me, and every other agent I know get so impassioned about these lovely people who want to do good, but probably aren’t ready yet.

Long blog post is over. To sum up, research like it’s your job! Because it is. Now, let’s hug it out.

When to Fold ‘Em

This weekend I went to the Surrey International Writer’s Conference and met some very talented writers. I made more requests at this conference than I’ve had at most others I’ve been to this year, and the reasons why became obvious during our pitch sessions. For one, these writers studied craft. Not only were they just good writers, but they knew their genres and where their book would be placed in a bookstore. It was clear they read within their genres too; not once did I hear someone compare their novels to a massive bestseller or radically mislabel them.

The second reason is because the majority of the writers at this conference had a clear vision for their writing career. They did their research in which agent was the best to pitch and no one was rude or abrasive if their novels weren’t requested. They understood that it’s not personal; it’s business, and rejection is just a stepping stone to finding a better agent for their work.

There were of course some pitches that simply weren’t for me, which is always bound to happen, but I noticed another small trend in what I was rejecting. Or rather, not what, but who I was rejecting: The Used Car Saleswriter.

It goes something like this:

Writer: “My book is about [X]”
Agent: “Thanks but I don’t think that’s for me.”
Writer: “WAIT! WAIT! I ALSO HAVE THIS ONE!”
Agent: “Um, OK fine. Let’s hear it.”
Writer: “It’s about [Y]”
Agent: “Sorry, this one isn’t for me either. Someone else might – “
Writer: “But surely I have something you’ll like! Perhaps something in red! With a moon roof! I’ll throw in a juicer!”
Agent: ::slowly backs away:: ::joins Witness Protection::

OK, so this is an extreme case, but variations of this conversation do happen in pitch sessions. I see it more often in my query inbox. Sometimes I’ll get 3 or 4 queries from the same person all sent on the same day. Other times I’ll send a form rejection and their next-day response will be a new query for a different project, as if the first project they queried meant nothing. Sometimes these responses are even within the hour. The strangest repeat queriers are the ones who just keep sending new material with no mention of ever having contacted me before, as if they’ve become one with the query process and stopped paying attention to the actual humans on the other end of it.

I encourage writers to re-query even if they receive a form rejection, but it’s important to know when to stop. (Hint: Usually after two or three queries, unless an agent specifies that you can send more work in the future or asks you what else you’re working on.)

Sending too many queries to an agent who’s already rejected you says, to me, the following:

  • You don’t care who represents you, just as long as someone does. 
  • You’re not ready to query because you aren’t thinking seriously about your career. If you give up that easily on your own projects, why should anyone else invest time into them? 
  • You have no intention of listening to feedback or taking constructive criticism. If you’re ignoring form rejections and only using them as an invitation to send something else, then you’re not stopping to consider the fact that either your query or the project itself is the problem. 

With requested material, I’m more forgiving. Sometimes I will ask to see future work, but if I read two or more of the same writer’s manuscripts and they’re still not clicking with me, I won’t want to read another one. I could like their third or fourth manuscript just fine, but I’ll probably still pass on it because I already know it’s the only manuscript of the writer’s that I like. [Note: By “like” I mean both in personal taste and in regard to my ability to sell the project in question.]

I’ve also had writers ask me what would happen if they significantly revise. Can they re-submit then? This depends. With queries, an agent rejects or accepts based on the premise of the book. So, if we pass on it, we likely won’t be interested even if the writing improves. If an agent requested material and the main reason for rejection was the overall execution of the plot, then it can’t hurt to try again if the revisions are significant.

You don’t only get one shot in this business. Most of the time, you get several. If one person passes, send to someone else. If everybody passes, send out a new project. No one will yell at you. But keep track of who responds and what they say. Some rejections are nicer than others, and some provide more explanation than others, but a rejection is a rejection. Don’t settle for an agent who begrudgingly accepts the one project they think they can sell. You want an agent who will leap at the chance to represent your work and be equally excited about your other ideas, that way you’ll both have a long, satisfying career.

Should You Publish Your Memoir?

There have been some good posts about memoir recently – I’m thinking specifically of Janet Reid’s post on querying a memoir and Rachelle Gardner’s on when to write your memoir. I’ve noticed an increase in nonfiction queries lately, and have met with a few writers at conferences who are trying to get theirs published. I like memoir and personal essay collections a lot and don’t read them nearly as much as I used to. (Note: Not because I stopped liking them. It’s mostly because I don’t have the time.)

Creative nonfiction reminds me of why I wanted to be a writer. My expectations and fantasies of New York were formed when I read E.B. White, Joan Didion, and David Rakoff in college. I went head-to-head with writers like Nick Hornby and Chuck Klosterman in my obsession with pop culture analysis. I commiserated and laughed with David Sedaris over our crazy families. Through writers like Jennifer Finney Boylan, Leslie Feinberg, Mary Karr, and Joyce Johnson I formed my ideas of feminism and civil rights and shared in their experiences even though their lives couldn’t have been farther from my own.

I expect a lot from memoir writing and essays, which I think is why I haven’t found anything I’m head-over-heels in love with yet. I’m looking, always looking, but it’s hard. I need to be inspired, awestruck, unable to put down the book even after I finish it.

Reactions like that are harder to come by these days. I’m no longer the idealistic youth I was when I first discovered creative nonfiction, but I am still a romantic at heart. The difference now is that I’m a tougher reader, a stronger editor, and even if a story gives me that jaw-dropping reaction, I’m forced to look at it from a business angle. Can I sell this? Is there a place for it in the current market? Do I know the right editors to send this to? The same questions that go into whether I offer representation on a fiction project go into nonfiction projects. But, there’s an added question when it comes to nonfiction. Even though memoir writing is pitched to agents the same as a novel would be (see Janet Reid’s post linked above), the word “platform” looms over even the most literary and story-focused nonfiction writer.

As an agent, I end up rejecting queries from writers who have bravely shared their stories of abuse, drug addiction, war, divorce, cancer/fatal diseases, kidnapping, and almost every other painful or difficult thing you can think of. Because the thing is, these things are horrible, but they are also, unfortunately, common. There is a fine line between “relatable” and “boring.” Agents and publishers need to see your story on a national scale, and while things seem unique and important to the writer, their stories don’t always translate to a bigger picture.

That’s where platform comes back in. It’s an awful feeling to have to say to a writer “your story is beautiful, but not enough people will care.” (OK, not that I’ve ever said that to a writer, but that is what it comes down to.) People care about celebrities because they think they know who they are and want to relate to them. The difference between Michael Douglas’ cancer and your cancer is huge, I’m sorry to say.

I’m a big proponent of writing as a form of therapy. Treat your story like you are going to share it with the world. Get everything down on paper and then edit, edit, edit. Even if no one else ever reads it, EDIT. If someone outside of your family won’t understand something, cut it. If your emotions are still too strong to view a situation objectively, cut it. I’ve done this with my own experiences and it really does help. Sometimes we just need to get things down on paper so it escapes our minds. That doesn’t mean we need to publish it.

It’s obvious why people write memoirs. Sometimes it’s the only thing they can do. But, unless you are a celebrity or published author, ask yourself the following questions before you try to publish your memoir:

1. Can someone else write this story?
It’s true, everyone handles situations differently and learns different lessons. That is not what we mean when we ask whether your story is unique. As I mentioned above, most people have gone through what you’ve gone through. Unless you are the only person who can write about that topic, your memoir will probably get overlooked by agents and publishers. Excellent writing can often change our minds, but you should know going in that even if you have an MFA from a top program and have crafted your memoir flawlessly, it will be tough.

2. Why does this need to be published?
Most people write memoirs because they think others can learn from their personal experiences. This can be true, but that’s not a motive that interests me. I want to be told a great story, whether it’s your memoir or a novel. If you set out to inspire people or teach a lesson, make sure you’re not writing a self-help book instead of a memoir. Creative nonfiction means you employ the same techniques as novel writing, except the ideas come from real life instead of your imagination. The ability to tell a story and develop a character needs to be there in order for your memoir to get published.

3. Will this be more effective as a novel?
I give this advice to debut memoir writers a lot. If the story is interesting, but not particularly unique or exciting, I wonder why it’s so important to the writer to publish it as nonfiction. Fictionalizing real life can be just as therapeutic and it allows for creative freedom to build an even more interesting story for your reader. The heart of your story remains, but you’ll be free of platform-building. Not only that, your readers won’t expect as much from you. Reading a memoir creates an intimacy with the author, but if that author is just some stranger off the street, sometimes readers are left wondering, “yeah but so what?” A novel, on the other hand, transports the reader into a fictional world that’s far less demanding and just as real.

I tend to think of personal essay collections the same way I think of memoir, but I admit they are a slightly different breed. For one, you’d need to have a few pieces already published in some higher profile magazines or keep a regular blog that has a substantial following. Essays also, when done well, offer cultural or political analysis through a personal narrative, which is hard to convince readers of if you’re not at least mildly known.

I’m rooting for you, creative nonfiction writers. Just be prepared for how much harder it can be to break into nonfiction as an unknown author – even harder than fiction, and those writers can tell you just how hard that world is to navigate. Readers love true stories and feeling like they aren’t alone in the world, but more goes into memoir writing than being a regular person. Make sure you’re trying to publish for the right reasons, and if your story is as funny, sad, wonderful, and inspiring to us as it is to you, we’ll fight for it.

Taking Advice

I saw this list of quotes from Stephen King today, and immediately thought “YES!” when I read the first one: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

As you know, I give writing advice a lot. I speak from a Bachelors and a Masters in creative writing and (more importantly) as a professional in the publishing industry. I’d like to think I’m pretty qualified to give writing advice, as are many other publishing professionals who offer advice on a regular basis. All we can do is sit back and hope people listen. (Mostly so we don’t have to repeat ourselves.)

That said, I understand why some writers don’t take our advice.

With so much subjectivity in the field, how does one differentiate between personal taste and unarguable truth? The thing is, there are always going to be exceptions to rules, so nothing is ever set in stone. But! For the most part, especially for a debut author who’s way less likely to be able to break any rules, there are some things you’ll just need to take an editor’s word on.

Bringing me back to adverbs. Poor, poor adverbs. The thing is, they can be used in moderation, but no one ever uses them sparingly enough, so they get ruined for everybody. Adverbs are words that seem to be universally hated by writing professionals, and yet writers continue to use (and abuse) them. It makes me wonder who is listening to writing advice out there.

So I ask you, fair writers:
How often do you listen to writing advice from professionals, either via blogs, conferences, or Twitter?
How many second opinions do you require before you’re able to think of suggestions as “rules?”
When something is as frowned upon as adverbs, are you still able to write it off as “personal preference?”

Thanks, friends 🙂