Archive for memoir

Investing to send your books into the world

We need to know if we’d like our books to become a part of a bigger world. Many like to call that publishing, but I consider that a business term. Getting a book into the world is all we can count upon. If you’re honest, you might find you’re not counting on it — and regretting the investment to carry your book into its next phase, so it can have a better shot to get an agent’s offer to represent it.

You’ll be able to make your way into the world without investments you might regret. The question is, can you go as far as you desire? You might have something free going for you: this book won’t leave you alone.

One of my workshop members queried 32 agents to get representation. She got it, and a good agent. Those were hand-tooled queries, too. I’m not one to handicap the future where art is concerned. But that desire to make a book, or a lack of it, has an impact upon the energy needed to make your book grow clearer and stronger.

Together we do make a book better, to give readers as discerning as yourself an easier time of finishing a story. A better book has a better chance of becoming a published book, but there are no formulas. For example, I’ve learned there’s many a memoir hiding inside a novel. Our wish as readers in the 21st century is to demand more realism in our fiction. “Based on a true story” is like catnip. Some novels are better as memoirs. But even memoirs have conventions. I think of these conventions like manners. They make access to your story easier. Even literary fiction has conventions.

I help people with memoirs, too. It’s about creating a story arc, no matter what the form. As humans we’re trained to expect things within story, but nothing is the same for everybody. (Well, being thrown into a lava pit is the same for all of us except the masochists. That’s over quickly, thank goodness.) I believe art doesn’t care about fiction or nonfiction. Art cares about deeper truth, the kind that moves hearts, using stories that linger in our bones. You can get there faster and go deeper with a bigger readership by believing in whatever you aim to build.

Painters can be self-taught, but visual art stands alone as one field where the discipline and training isn’t obvious to many viewers. People do train and study, though, and there’s a great deal of craft in the creation. The self-taught painter might be more common than a self-taught novelist. But there’s learning of the rules to be done everywhere before breaking them, I believe. Not just that rules of prose, but practices that open up what we need to say, so people get to our story’s climax — and carry that joy into the rest of the world.

Where mental health can aim us, or end us

Tomorrow is National Mental Health Day. Unless we can treat mental health with compassion and bravery every week, one commemorative day on the calendar won’t make enough of a difference to save lives that end in suicide. It’s an act that often happens with a gun when men commit it. I recoiled from the pain and fear of my Dad’s suicide when I was 21. While I was rescuing faith in my fatherhood, touring towns in a ballpark trip with my son Nicky, I circled the haunting memory of Dad’s act of departure. His was a fatality caused by the 1970s treatment of what was probably Bipolar 2, on Dad’s worst days. I share some of his struggles with moods. His event with a gun became a moment in my memoir about fatherhood and baseball, Stealing Home.

After leaving our last scheduled game in St. Louis, the next day my son and I plowed through miles of Missouri, our first day without a ballgame to anticipate. We stopped at a monument along the Mississippi devoted to the Trail of Tears march of Native Americans. There was a park attached to an overlook of the river. Our vacation convertible seemed to grow quieter with every exit sign that whipped past. One looked tilted, like the green sign that Dad had once veered toward on a wayward vacation turn. While I was in the Army, he lost his way and slipped into his deepest depression. His slide turned out to be fatal.

He started from a high point. Our voices cut through one Saturday in our home when we announced to Mom he’d built us the Blipper, as Dad named the wooden case he loaded with what we called electronics. Circuits of wires and transistors, capacitors, and resistors all crowded a box the size of a small bread loaf. The Blipper was festooned with knobs and dials to concoct sounds rolling out of a two-inch speaker. The toy added drama to the stories I dreamed up. Later on, Dad gave me a cartooning box and easel for a birthday, a dozen hand-cut pieces he’d screwed and glued together. He invited me to spray-paint it, and like any teenager, I chose jet black. Dad never seemed to feel better than when he was building something, except maybe on nights he’d lay on the couch watching comics like Buddy Hackett and Dean Martin on the variety shows. He barked out his dad laughter like a foghorn of peace. The soft breezes of his guffaws would unfurl across the bow of our family’s life boat.

Dad landed on the disabled list after those years. A pair of heart attacks forced his retirement at only forty-six, an event he called being put out to pasture. Dad wore his work like an ID badge, the habit of men from the Greatest Generation. Once he lost his job, he slid into a ferocious depression, a mood that stalked the rest of his time with us. It pulled him down like the undertow on a beach.

He killed himself inside a room that he’d remodeled from the cinderblock out when I was just a toddler, first adding the yellow paint to keep the stone walls dry. Little basement windows were scattered along the tops of the walls that he and I had paneled together. The windows delivered daylight, but rarely any fresh breeze. They were never opened. By the day Dad died he had also closed his sense of hope. If he felt sick on one day, he was certain that he’d be as bad or worse the next.

At his end, he was too sad to keep living. He must have figured his duty to me and my brother Bob was finished after we left. Bob and I were away in the Army on that day. I cannot be sure of his mind in the weeks that led to his suicide. He dreaded our returns on leave because we were seeing him more diminished than ever. He was a sick man, he’d say to anyone, even if they hadn’t asked.

I don’t know exactly what that basement looked like on that afternoon he died. I know little about the morning he spent by himself, either. I can see him, though, still in his bathrobe by 2, the garment wrapped across the boxers that we knew as Dad’s underwear. Their waistband didn’t strain over his belly anymore. He’d lost weight because he didn’t eat much over his final weeks.

Dad and I gave up trying to bridge our divide. He was compulsive about his judging, though, and he turned that habit onto himself once he had no sons around. Unable to blame his sorrows on his family, he turned his anger onto his own heart.

He might have shuffled across the linoleum floor in the mock-leather slippers Mom gave him the year before for their 25th anniversary. On his final day he’d pull his records out of a cabinet he built himself and had coated with Formica, looking over one album and then another, studying each but unsure what to play. Barry Sadler’s The Ballad of the Green Berets eventually spun on the turntable. “Fighting soldiers from the sky, fearless men, who jump and die.” Maybe Dad thought about sons who were away in service while those lyrics tumbled out of the massive speakers he’d built. Dying that day would not be fearless for him.

The Green Berets might have led to Hank Williams as he dug into his dark mood, and on to other records whose grooves held more woe than hope. The sun crept enough to slant light through those tiny windows along the tops of the walls. He listened for movement upstairs and heard nothing. Mom would be at work until 3. He left that record cabinet door open and pushed through his workshop door, his hand running across the knotty pine that he’d sanded and shellacked.

This is where a gun plays a role in his finale, as it does for many men who commit suicide. After the knotty pine, his hand rested on another piece of wood, the stock of the lightest weapon in the house. His .22 pistol would be no problem for him to train on himself. Compulsive to the last, he took his time oiling and loading it and found that he wanted to pray. Dad’s prayer may have been for something better to be waiting beyond his very hard moment now at hand. Nothing more to do here, so move along, he said to himself. Buck Owens was wailing to cover the shot.

Later, when that white vacation station wagon rolled into the driveway and the storm door creaked at the landing atop the basement stairs, Mom slipped into the kitchen with paper grocery sacks. There was a sound coming from the basement’s stereo, the click of a record needle rubbing against an LP label. Dad wouldn’t put up with that for long. Mom came down the stairs to see if he was standing or fallen with another heart attack. She discovered him and his fatal gunshot wound, his body slumped on our leftover maroon couch in the rec room. The phone in the basement was disconnected, so she had to bolt up the stairs to call Toledo’s Rescue Squad.

They couldn’t rescue Dad from what drove him to his final day: mental illness. The death certificate said that he was gone in an instant once he pulled the trigger. Maybe some peace washed up around him on that March afternoon 42 years ago. His everyday waters of worry, though, sank him into a place where death was a relief to him. They will be better off without me is the lie that every suicide lives upon. His act felt like that to me as well, at first. His suicide was the end of a lifelong struggle against sadness and fear.

Dad wouldn’t say it this way, but his heart circuit was broken without his job. I was as manic and depressive as him on my worst days, but I never lost my work like he did, not for long. There were dark weeks after I was fired from a sports editor job, drifting into cab driving and warehouse labor for a brief time just to pay the bills. I made my way back into the light during the first year of Nicky’s life. I had to rescue myself from Dad’s weaknesses, so I tried to be the father he couldn’t be—whether it was because his generation’s men didn’t lay their hearts open, or because he didn’t see it was his duty to open his soul’s window to love. Being Nicky’s dad, trying to rescue rituals of fatherhood, was my way of shaking free from the past.

How long should your memoir be?

Authors ask me if their memoir is long enough. Actually, they usually ask if it’s the right length. How long should your memoir be? There’s a wide range of answers, and one of them is the right answer for you. The skill you will need from an editor of your memoir is knowing which length is best.

It’s not enough to say it depends, when I hear the question of how long should your memoir be. I usually ask questions like how much time does your story cover? Years, or months, or weeks? Some memoirs, only a few, can cover a handful of days. The shorter the time span, the more likely it is you have a good sense of how long your memoir should be.

You want to locate the turning point in the story. It might be after your wife died and you found your path onto schooling, leading to an advanced degree. In one book where I’ve helped out, that degree showed the author had healed his pain over the troubled marriage. Memoirs demand focus for writers, to keep readers engaged. That’s one reason they run best at about 65-75,000 words.

Make the story fit

It can be a real challenge to get a story that you’ve lived all your life to fit into a container of that size. Jeanette Walls has a memoir, The Glass Castle, that memoirists everywhere like to reference. Yes, it’s been a movie, it’s that popular. It’s super-long at 100,000 words. And Wild has been an astounding success at 130,000 words. Again, movie-worthy, and it’s important to note that the finished screenplay was about 150 pages. They winnowed on Cheryl Strayed’s winnowing. But Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, about losing her husband and her daughter in the same year, in just 50,000 words.

Glass Castle runs from the author’s little girlhood to her entry into college. Wild covers just the weeks of a long trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, plus many flashbacks into the author’s girlhood and addictions. The Year of Magical Thinking covers a year. Each of these stories has a container in time. Without a container, the meaning of the book drifts. Everything we live through is vital and searing to us. It has less potential for such sharp meaning to our readers, though. We pick our storytelling spots and work on making them sparkle.

A subset or a slice of life

As a development editor, I tell my authors we may look at a manuscript and come to a decision that it’s going to need a refocus, a winnowing of the many stories into a one subset of a life. That’s memoir’s mission: to help both the author and readers see how one chunk of a life changed things for the better.

No matter who you talk with about editing, everyone should be recommending Beth Kephart’s memoir book Handling the Truth and the one by Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. Refer to them in that order; Karr has a more poetic approach. They both have memoir reading lists for your reference. Since you want to get published, rather than publish yourself, you’ll be in the race with books that follow those books’ guidelines. Knowing what else has been commercially successful is important.

Memoir editing can be a big journey. Sometimes there’s that moment when your editor says, after reading your pages, “How about more on that topic?” Memoir demands emotionally difficult material, usually, when you’re asked to add something. The hardest stories can come out last. My father’s suicide was the portion of my memoir Stealing Home that my editor asked me to write.

You’ve spent many years living and remembering your story. Giving it the best chance it can get will be worthwhile. It will also give your writing a better chance of a publishing contract.

I want a great cover. What is that, anyway?

Everybody wants a great cover on their book. That’s a few things at once, the greatness.




Creating a cover concept meets one or more of those needs. If the cover does none of those things well, you won’t know until the book goes on sale, or when your novel is considered for review coverage, or when it gets its shot to be stocked in a retail store, or selected for the email promotion you’ve applied for. (Yes, the best promotions have a waiting list.)

See all the things a cover does? It’s even more complex when you factor in your writing style, genre, and subject. What you don’t want to do while building a cover, though, is to mistake whatever you’ve written for the cover your book needs and deserves. Your writing might be powerful, but your writing doesn’t have to capture a reader in five seconds. A good cover must do that.

Your publisher — whether it’s you, or a company that’s paying you to publish your book — will be constrained by cover budget. Good covers start around $450. Great covers can be as expensive as $2,500. Covers come from cover designers, people who can Do This All Day, this cover magic. Cover designers won’t say, “Well, that’s good enough, isn’t it?”

It’s not difficult to see the difference, side by side.

Both books won notable awards for literary fiction. One had an independent self-publisher. The other was built for the Literary Industrial Complex, where sales and buzz matter most.

Book covers are a matter of taste, and they’re also something that calls authors to the ramparts to battle over. Not That Cover is an argument often made by an author. “It misrepresents my story,” the author might say. The publishing pros can retort, “Yes, you think it does. But it also makes readers stop and consider it. It’s beautiful. And it doesn’t make the mistake of being so abstract it can’t tell any story, or so specific that it acts like a table of contents or a synopsis.”

Those are not the things a great cover is supposed to do. Essence is the element you want to capture. Worst of all might be the kind of cover that does that abstraction mistake, plus telling a story in so much detail it’s mysterious.

My own, self-designed cover from my debut novel Viral Times did that.

“See, the icon at the bottom indicates the SexNet, where the virtual hook-ups happen. The icon on the top right is the virus that gets transmitted over that network. The green area represents health using natural cures for virus infections. The orange represents the toxic nature of the Mighty Hand virus.”

Or something like that. You don’t get to explain your cover. It’s supposed to captivate and express emotion.

My re-do (circa 2015) is still a DIY, even though I designed for print for more than 30 years. It’s got its problems, the biggest one being that it relies on a photo image. Photos are not in vogue today.

At least you can see a person in some danger there. I’m letting the title do all the rest of the work. Still, not a pro cover. I hired out for the next book’s cover and got a great job for good value. It’s nonfiction, though, and it behaves by different rules. You must still be subtle in a nonfiction book. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a story theme that makes itself obvious to everyone. At other times, the visual theme is the star itself.

I’m proud of the Stealing Home memoir cover that I hired Asya Blue to create. I got comps (different ideas to consider) from her — plus so much input on her tuning of the art.  Yes, it’s art, to build a cover. Because I self-published, I was the ultimate decision-maker. I needed that, but you may not. Whatever that cover does is ultimately my call. Or as generous artists sometimes say after a collaboration, “Whatever’s not working is my fault. The best stuff came from the others.”

Hire a pro and set your cover expectations higher. Engage with someone who can Do This All Day, because they have, and for years.

Buy books if you read. Pay authors, to be fair

Some studies show that only 35 percent of Americans read a book last year. Out of that modest number, there might be the same percentage who read paperback editions. The paperbacks which pay authors are purchased new. Those paperbacks are available at bookstores, at spots like Amazon, even from the authors themselves.

Authors get paid when sales take place in those places. That’s fair, because to most authors, their compensation is under $2 a book. One habit drags down their livelihoods. Used books cut authors out of the equation.

The roughest part? In one misguided column, a writer for BookRiot is promoting “only buy used books.”

If you don’t know BookRiot, it’s a tremendous website that writes about books and literature. Millions of viewers and thousands of dollars in ad money taken. Money from authors and their publishers. I see a big problem there: authors pay people like the website columnist Anna Gooding-Call. Her column Buy Used Books. Here’s Why tells us that reusing a paper book is good for the environment — and you’ll find great things to read, too.

Used books also help ensure there are fewer books to read, if the only thing you do is, as she suggests, “reserve purchases of new paper books for special occasions.” If authors only wrote for such special occasions, the world might read only authors like George R.R. Martin, or Donna Tartt. Great to have their books around. Genius there, those novels. Readers waited 10 years for Tartt’s second book. Martin is still holding out on his many Game of Thrones readers. They published on the timeline of “special occasion.”

Shelves of free books

Our columnist has her viewpoint, so her home is probably full of used books. Since she writes for BookRiot, though, her shelves might be full of books that were sent to her for review. Or passed along by reviewer friends, all in the name of saving the planet and maybe gaining a fan. I hope she’s not carrying the free books to any place but a library or a charity.

If you’re truly into saving the planet, ebooks do that job well. Any kind of paperback, used or new, sticks a fly into that environmental oatmeal. Selling a paperback a second time flies in the face of pure environmental concern. Also a plus: an ebook is a one-time sale on behalf of an author. Most ebooks can’t be resold.

This isn’t theoretical for me. My latest book, the memoir Stealing Home, was released in August. A used copy already has a permanent spot in Amazon as the book’s most affordable purchase. You get this sales treatment as an author, and it’s customary for the book business. The good news is that that used copy helps homeless people in New York, where any profits from the sale go to a charity.

So hey, remember that if you fill your bookshelves only with used paper, you cut out the creators of the work that you admire and enjoy. Pay your tribute to an author you admire: buy a paperback from them directly if you can. Author website sales help us keep writing. Bookstores selling paper help everyone discover new voices. You can help yourself to used books, but keep your purchases spread across the whole ecosystem of reading. There’s a creative environment there to preserve, right alongside the climate of the planet.

Is there a memoir in your journals?

Journaling is a worthy element of the writing life. The material is right at hand, all those things that have happened to you. Or your journal might run to dreams and wishes, or deconstruct the events you’ve been witness to, yesterday or long ago.

A journal though, no matter how carefully and faithfully kept, is just a single tool in the crafting of a memoir. Just because you have four decades of bound journals in your closet doesn’t mean you’re ahead of the curve on writing a memoir.

Journaling, by its very name, sets out an episodic structure of storytelling. On this day, once upon a time, these things happened, and here is how I feel about them. If there’s detail in your journal entries, it can help you recreate and remember parts of the story you captured in a journal.

Your memoir is both bigger than that journal, and smaller as well. A memoir is bigger because the memoir gives us context and meaning to surround events in a life. A memoir is smaller than a journal, especially a box-load of them, because memoirs examine a slice of a life. You might have a journal that kept note of the year you kicked cocaine, or the year you started that horse farm that you eventually sold to the mall developers.

You need more to make a memoir. You’re likely to research that special year of journals to search out the details that are not readily available as you write your memoir. The details might be sparing. Journal entries don’t often include the smell in the air or the cast of the light in a room, or what the drug counselor wore every day there was a group meeting. Most of all, the journals don’t revolve around a theme, unless you know your life’s patterns and prejudices before you take down the events and feelings. Read More →