Image

Archive for nonfiction

How Authors Can Win with Critique Groups

It’s hard to know how much help a group can be until you see its authors in action. You’ll get more help from a group with a few authors who have published. If you’re lucky, it’s traditional publishing at any level (small press and un-agented) or even self-published (using editorial rounds from an editor like me.) If nobody in the group has even posted a blog entry, that’s a warning signal.

It’s not easy to find a relevant group of fellow writers, and a good editor can do much of that work. You’ll pay for that analysis, but there’s an upside: you’re not committing to doing a lot of analysis on another debut memoirist’s work.

Everybody needs an outside set of eyes, regardless of skill.

I ran a monthly manuscript group with novelists and another with memoirists. For more than 11 years, I critiqued a lot of manuscript pages. Using Amherst Writers & Artist training, I’d started critiquing with handwriting in the margins, plus a memo. Eventually, my annotations got so explicit that I had to shift to commenting in Word. A good response to a disconnect in writing is delivered right next to the problem.

Helpful critique takes note of three primary things:

• Plausibility, the measure of realism
• Detail, the measure of accuracy that evokes rich experience
• Motivation, the measure of why a character or person in story acts the way they act

Clarity

Then there’s the matter of clarity. You achieve clarity by making your writing compact. Frank Conroy, who ran the Iowa Writer’s Workshop for decades, wrote about clarity in his memoir Dogs Bark, but the Caravan Rolls On. It’s about the only place that Conroy wrote about the Workshop’s practices. About clarity, he says, “The reader expects the writer to have removed all excess language, to have distilled things to their essences — whether the style is simple or complex. If the writer has not done this work [of clarity], the reader is less enthusiastic about putting energy into reading the text, less sure of being on common ground.”

Conroy describes writing as a pyramid of skills. Meaning, Sense, and Clarity are the bedrock of the pyramid. Until a writer achieves these, then things like voice, tone, and mood are likely to fail. Metaphor is three levels higher than the bedrock. (We all love to use metaphor, don’t we? Have a look at this video to see how.)

Nonfiction presses us into fewer places to fail in a narrative, because we’re describing events that happened to people who exist in the known world. However, memoir steps closer to the aims of a novel, needing to evoke more emotion. Memoir is what we nonfiction writers gravitate toward when we find a “story that must be told.” Sometimes it’s called narrative nonfiction — the name is a matter of how much realism resides in the writing. Tone is more important in memoir, for some authors.

If you focus on the tone of the writing, the attitude of it, you’ve got to do that by assuring readers about the bedrock of meaning, sense, and clarity. These three things might be in there, in your estimation. The context is always your head, though. Not theirs, at least not with the kind of reading that’s easy to get from a critique group. Your context may not yet be clear enough for your group.

Liking it isn’t enough

Without their express understanding of how stories succeed, you can just file criticisms from a group’s members the heading of opinions. They may not be connecting, and good writing turns the writer’s intention into the reader’s experience. A critique group member might say, “I’m just not feeling it,” and every author gets less well served. Specifics on what doesn’t work for them really help. It’s always up to you to agree or disagree.

Sometimes we join groups to get our writing into the world in a limited way, so it seems more real and closer to publication. Affirmation is a fine thing, even if it’s just, “Well, I read your chapters.” Learning what to try next requires specifics. Nonfiction skills may not prepare us for memoir as well as we’d believe. We get pretty good at making clarity as a regular result of pages sent to groups, though. Outside readers give us a checkup on that.

Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

Let’s get real about self-publishing

I used to be an ardent fan of self publishing. I thought that the extra money you’d get out of making your own business choices, along with bigger royalties, would offset the extra work of publishing yourself. You could be rewarded with sales because no one cares as often about your book (every day) or as much as you do.

Then I self-published nonfiction. Books like my Stealing Home can be easier to sell than fiction, especially since mine’s about Little League baseball and fatherhood. But mine also has an art component. Out of all of the nonfiction created, memoirs have the greatest amount of art. My nonfiction book has plenty of dramatic scenes. Good memoirs can get away with that level of entertainment.

Self-publishing meant more than just hiring good editors and coaches, or getting a great cover on the front of a book that has no typos inside. It meant getting good reviews, then finding a way to get publicity for the book. Making choices about contests to enter (not free) and the shows to exhibit at (ditto). It meant discovering that bookstores are a lot less likely to stock your book for sale if you have only yourself and your plans to market it. They want customers coming into the store who have heard about your book before they discover it on the shelves. Two kinds of bookstore customers: those who come to discover and those seeking a particular book. The latter will buy more often, so long as the book is for sale on the shelves.

Bookstores might only represent one-third of all books sold by now. When was the last time you bought a book inside a store? Bookstore sales have prestige, but that prestige will not get your books sold. Once you’re for sale in a store, your results are tracked by Bookscan. That’s a grade card, the kind of measure that will keep publishers from investing extra money after your release as well as following through on promises to market more. It can prevent booksellers from re-ordering, too, or hanging on to your books for months instead of weeks.

Now when authors ask me about self-publishing, I reply, “How much do you like marketing and publicity?” By publishing yourself, you sign up for all of that work. If you’re a good writer but have not done marketing before, you need to polish a new voice.

I advise the authors to have a publicist lined up for their book release. It’s a major cost with a questionable return. That’s earned media. Paid media is advertising. The ads for Amazon are a huge gamble. You bid for a keyword and Amazon charges you Per Click. Not Per Sale. You only win the bid with a higher figure. Facebook can drive readers to your website, or to the Amazon page. The latter destination offers the readers 8-20 other things to buy at the same time they’re judging your product.

There are no perfect answers out there for the dilemma of getting a book noticed, discovered, read, and recommended. The publishers do their best, but they often approach the task with too few resources to well-support every author in their list. Us writers and teachers approach our work as communicators and storytellers. The extra layer we hope to reach is commercial success. It’s a different and difficult victory to win the sale. We keep creating and invest in professional help, just like the publishers do.

Mike Shatzkin, who’s a genius at understanding publishing, wrote a column about how most publishing these days is produced by freelancers. If you know what you’re doing, you can hire these pros, too. Right down the line, until you make your way to the distribution (sales) gateway. If your pros have done the needed work, you’ll pass through. At that point, you’re more traditionally published than self-published. Self-publishing gives you more control — and puts the commercial risks in your hands, too.

How a proposal can get your book published

Every book needs a game plan to play its way into a publisher’s lineup. Things like comparable books and the heartbeat promise of a story are the same for fiction and nonfiction. Unlike what you might have heard, every publisher makes an investment and wants to earn it back when they buy a book from an author — whether that book is a true story or not.

The difference is that a nonfiction book doesn’t have to be finished before it sells. Some key parts of the book need to be finished and look very good, though. Otherwise, you’ll just hear crickets. What follows is a two-page summary of making the proposal, the first look at any book telling a true story. Think memoirs or yoga books, or that passionate story about living every day because you might die tomorrow.

Process

In short, a proposal is finding books that are like yours but missing a key element. Plus, finding a gap in the market where nobody’s writing a book like yours and being able to name that gap. You also find a specific way to describe your readers and where you will find them. You will need ideas and promises about how you will help market and sell the book. Finally, you write: a table of contents, plus a summary into the inside flap or back cover copy. You create and polish a few sample chapters, and buff up an inspiring bio that shows you’re the best-qualified person to write your book.

Comparables and competition

We might as well start here, because it’s the point where the publisher’s sales and marketing team will decide to buy your book. You’re either filling a wide and well-identified gap — holy cow, no books about being a minister and working for gun safety — or you can add something captivating and essential to what’s already on the shelves of bookstores.

If you don’t know it already, you need to think in terms of bookstores while you create a proposal. A publisher will think of them first, since more books are bought in paper than any other medium. If you get the deal done, the audiobook opportunity for you to narrate will follow.

Where to look? I like the daily reports of Publisher’s Marketplace, the thorough reporting from Publisher’s Weekly, the grassroots bookselling stories in Shelf Awareness, and the fun of Edelweiss+ catalogs, and even Amazon’s Also Purchased books. Shelf Awareness has a nice element called Shelf Talker, which suggests what a bookseller might say to a customer about a book.

Dig in. Ask your author friends if they know of anything like your book. Come to this part of the proposal prepared and you will look more professional. Being perceived as professional is much more important for a nonfiction author.

Knowing your audience

Saying that a book is for mothers or dads just won’t do. Those are chunks of the world too big to target. If you say it’s for divorced dads with tough custody agreements, you’re much closer. (My memoir Stealing Home targets those readers among its audience. It also appeals to baseball fans who are fathers of Little Leaguers. “This book is for readers who enjoyed Dan Shaughnessy’s Senior Year.”)

If your book is “For everybody,” it’s really for nobody. That’s because it’s too difficult to discover a book to read while it campaigns alongside the bestsellers published by Bigger Companies Than Your Publisher. Who use Bigger Discovery Budgets: marketing.

Nothing helps you find readers for your book — and convince a publisher you can lead those readers to a purchase — better than specific descriptions tied to resources. For one memoirist I’ve coached, we tracked down associations covering counseling for suicide, another for legislative staffers working to get bills passed, plus associations of law enforcement. Putting membership numbers onto these helps a publisher visualize sales.

Everybody knows somebody. If you have a friend or an author acquaintance who is a police officer, or who works on a senator’s staff, or helps on a hotline, you find out where they gather and trade messages. Believe it or not, Facebook can be a great resource here, if you don’t know people like your prospective readers. And if you don’t know your prospective readers, well, that’s something to look at while you’re choosing a book to write.

The overview writing: table of contents and summary

This doesn’t work quite as well for memoirs, but a table of contents is an essential element in any nonfiction book proposal. (A memoir has episodes that it uses as its backbone.) As an author, you probably already have one of these lists which you call an outline. If you don’t have one, it’s time to go back and create it — as much for the book’s chances at being a good book as for your chances to get a publishing contract to finish it. Good books just sell better at every step, including the step where you sell your book to the publisher.

This is the spot where you look over your contents and then write that summary — the one that seems way too short and turns out to be the very thing you use to decide to buy a book yourself.

The sample writing: your best chapters

The beauty of proposing nonfiction is that your best foot forward does not have to be your first one. You can include a sample chapter from the middle of the book, or a rousing conclusion, and get just as far as submitting an introduction. The writing has to be stellar, which will usually involve an editor or a key reader who also is an author. You can’t see everything that your writing should be, as well as everything it can be.

If you have a couple of chapters, or three, that demonstrate varying styles of voice from the same book, that’s a good reason to include a smorgasbord of writing. For example, you might have case histories as well as an inspiring overview. The point of submitting a sample is to show you’re a good enough writer to invest in; be ready to be edited once your deal is closed. Your book will be different than your samples. Nobody can say for sure how different. Publishers prefer authors with experienced voices.

Bio, or why it’s gotta be you

Authors arrive at the bio with some trepidation, secretly knowing all of the things they haven’t done as well as someone else. This is something to cast aside when you tell a publisher who you are. There’s something personal about your life that made you want to write the book. There’s also something professional or accomplished about you that makes you an expert. Not the expert — that’s too much to ask. As just one expert, you will still know more than most readers. If you’re an expert at testifying before legislators’ staffs because you’ve done it for years, that counts. If you created a style of yoga that puts thousands of people onto mats, people who never thought they could do yoga, that’s expertise, too.

Don’t think this bio is going to be its best on your first draft. It can be a good strategy to have outside eyes help you with the bio. An interview conducted by somebody with journalism skills, just like the one you’d hope for at a resume service, is a grand tool to build a bio.

If you have recommendations or references you use to practice your life’s work, or your superior volunteering career, you can call on this to show who you are, too. LinkedIn offers a way to solicit recommendations. You can use this to fill up your testimonial cup.

Marketing and Selling: It’s kinda on you

Despite how it might seem, a publishing deal to create a book still falls back on you every day. Yes, your publisher has details and experience to guide you, as well as people who do the marketing and sales for a living. However, you are the only person who cares about your book every single day. Publishers recognize this and sign up the authors who know they are the starters in the publishing lineup.

Not only do you create the content, but you also find the readers and sometimes close the deal. Nobody will track down book clubs and blog communities and even TV-social media-Web like you will. If all of that is beyond your experience, you can fix that. Hire a publicist or a social media expert. Lots of big-time authors do this, because publishers have a finite bandwidth to help authors in the publishing stable.

You will need specifics to get a proposal accepted: I’ll approach these communities. I’ll write and submit for these blogs. I will stock a YouTube channel and connect with these existing contacts. I will approach these library systems. If you’ve been covered in the media, this is where you bring it up.

Get yourself out there

Be brave and have swagger. As Brenda Ueland said in If You Want to Write, “Be bold, free, and truthful.” She also says you should “Be careless, reckless — a lion and a pirate when you write.”

Get Brenda’s book. It will feed you like a lion tamer and fill your treasure chests with courage. Writing a proposal is brave, good work.

If you’d like help with your proposal process, I like working with authors who want to make bold strides toward publication. Publisher’s deals are a good thing to pursue, once you add up everything you must do to self-publish. Contact me so we can talk.