Out With It and the Good Life Project

Filming the good life projectHave you ever had that dream where you walk down the road naked? Do you remember the moment you realize that everyone is staring at you in your birthday suit?

Now, imagine that it isn’t a dream. Imagine that, for a moment, the world gets to see you and all your bare humanity. How do you feel?

I feel petrified, or at least that’s how I felt as I stared at my laptop screen 5 days ago, in the wee hours of the morning. Jonathan had sent over advance access to the Good Life Project interview that would be aired in the morning, and I was watching the interview with headphones stuffed into my ears as Jeremy peacefully snored away in the other room.

In the morning, the video would be sent out to Jonathan’s tribe of avid fans and posted for the world to see on YouTube.

I had just gone very, very public with my stutter.

I had no idea how everyone would react. Would they hate it? Would my inbox be filled with vitriol? Would I be laughed at or criticized?

All the negative thoughts were chased by more hopeful ones. Would it comfort some people? Would it start to change the conversation about what is normal, about what it means to stutter? Would it inspire others to be fearless, to embrace whatever vulnerability they were dealing with?

I slept fitfully and woke up feeling hung-over, the image of my own face blocking, repeating and smiling etched into my mind’s eye.

By the time the interview was posted, I had readied myself for every bad reaction I could imagine.

And yet, in the past few days, my fears haven’t been realized. Not even close. Instead, I have been shocked by the messages I received full of nothing but support and gratitude. I have opened incredible emails and messages from strangers, from businessmen and mothers, from friends and people I barely know. I am still in awe of their kindness.

As one of them said, “I can’t imagine how hard it is to have something so personal so public. But I bet it is liberating!”

Liberating is a good word for it. Vulnerable and strong and never cowed. It was how I wanted people to see the book, the pieces that I had been struggling to express in the title.

Just before the video was posted, I heard from my editor. The publisher had given the thumbs up to our title: Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice.

What do you think?

The agony and the ecstasy of choosing a book title

I think I may have sprouted a few grey hairs.

My editor had to hand in my final book title today. Our past two working titles had been thrown out, and a sudden deadline gave us only three days to come up with a great title.

You would think that it would be fun coming up with a book title. Or maybe you have more sense than me, and realize that distilling a book’s essence into a few carefully chosen words is not exactly a walk in the park.

I pictured myself being struck by inspiration whilst relaxing over a picnic in Prospect Park. Instead, my brain melted in New York’s tropical heat-wave and I drove myself slightly insane trying to dredge up an idea.

On Friday I made lists of titles as the AC buzzed next to my ear. Too vague, too passive, too literal. I threw them in the bin and started again.

I formed towers of non-fiction books around my desk for inspiration. Look Me in the Eye, The Glass Castle, How To Be A Woman, Me Talk Pretty One Day…

book titlesI liked strange titles, titles that surprised me in some way, titles that made me laugh. I left the house, attempted to go for a swim (every pool in Brooklyn required a 3 block sweaty wait and the promise of Lycra-clad hoards) and came home hotter and more disgruntled.

I looked at my tower of books again.

One word titles started to stand out. Some of them were too vague or too grand. But others were bold and memorable and perfectly concise.

LIT, MIDDLESEX, WILD, QUIET…

They stuck in my mind and followed me around all weekend. I thought about them as I danced to a funk concert, as I drove north of the city and as I watched Jeremy coaching little league.

My editor and I exchanged title ideas whenever we thought of something that we didn’t hate. Emails were shot back and forth and, finally, this morning, hours before the deadline, we decided on a title. At least, we think we did. It still needs to go through the hurdle of our publisher’s approval.

While I wait, I’m keen to hear what you think….

What makes a great book title? Do you love or hate one-word titles?

How do you get a book published?

There is no easy process from start to finish. Learning how to write well, practicing every day and then coming up with a great story is an amazing start but the rest of the journey gets a bit more murky and uncertain from there. The statistics aren’t cheery. Approximately 2% of books that are written every year get commercially published. The true figure may be even lower. Self-publishing is now a much more viable alternative but many people still want to go down the traditional path. And the traditional path generally means a shocking amount of rejection and false starts.

book writing

Have I scared you off? Hopefully not. 2% of people are published and there are definitely ways to make sure that you have the best chance possible. For the purposes of this piece I’m going to be speaking about non-fiction (from what I have heard about fiction it involves writing a brilliant novel and then going out and convincing an agent and editor that it would be worth their while to publish it).

Non-fiction requires more planning and strategy up front. It requires you to think like a marketer, to try and answer all the questions that some future editor might ask.

Sound like fun? Perhaps not, but writing is a job, and, just like anything else, there will always be parts that aren’t as wonderful as others. You need to create a professional looking proposal that tells agents and editors that you are serious, that you will help them to sell your book, that you are not sitting around waiting for them to do all the hard work. There are lots of things you should do and no ‘right’ way or going about this but your proposal should probably include:

  1. Cover Page
  2. Table of contents
  3. About the book (1 page summary)
  4. About the author
  5. About the market
  6. About the competition
  7. Production details
  8. About promotion
  9. Table of contents (title for each chapter of your book)
  10. Short summaries for each chapter
  11. 2 or 3 sample chapters

Your finished book may end up nothing like your proposal but it is a good start, a good path to start going down. Once you have a proposal you can create a succinct, polished query letter to send out to agents. Take your time over this – in many ways the query letter is the most important few paragraphs you have written so far. It has to grab their attention and get them hooked enough to ask for your entire proposal.

Give yourself an outrageous goal. For instance, I told myself that I wouldn’t stop sending my query out until 100 agents said no to me. Hopefully you won’t get anywhere close to that number but it is good to prepare yourself, to grow a carapace of sorts. Lots of agents will not be interested. Don’t let that stop you. Keep sending out your query letter, keep networking, keep telling everyone about your book. Be shameless at trying to get an agent because, as difficult as it is to land an agent, your chances are far better than going directly to the editor and having your work end up on the dreaded slush pile….the graveyard of unsolicited manuscripts.

Once you have a good agent you have someone who can take your manuscript to the ‘right’ publishing house and steer you through the pitfalls of the whole process. At the end of it all, once you have signed a contract with your agent and a publishing house, you can breath easy for a few hours. But only a few hours, because now you have to write the book that you sold to them so well. The fun is just beginning…

Book deal: An ode to Lady Luck

6 months ago I was despairing. I should have been celebrating. Jeremy and I had just launched www.ExchangeMyPhone.com, we were still high on paint fumes (having rolled 7 gallons of eggshell white all over our Brooklyn flat) and were paying our bills.

We had moved to New York with no jobs and no savings and we had survived our first winter. I was proud of us.

And yet my latest rejection from a literary agent was staining my desk. Memoirs were no longer vogue, she wrote. Stuttering wasn’t a subject that had mass appeal. Good luck elsewhere.

I added the last rejection letter to my pile. I knew what she was really saying. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t be an author. I’d never get a book deal. My dreams were foolish.

writing: good luckFortunately when Lady Luck thinks she has trampled on your soul enough times she decides to give you a break. Yesterday I danced around my office, drank a celebratory Manhattan and ate some amazing homemade pasta with friends. I had just received my signed contract from Simon and Schuster.

It took me three years to get my book deal. I’m not sure whether that is a long time or a short time. It felt long. It felt hopeless towards the end. When I left England in October 2008 to research my book I had no idea what a challenge I was setting myself up for.

Writing was no joy ride. I faced far too much rejection, mockingly blank pages, a year of horrendous work and a very sad looking bank account.

Is it worth it? Definitely. I met Jeremy, I met hundreds of people from all over the country, I travelled, I lived in Chicago, I moved to New York and finally, at the end of it all, I ended up with an amazing editor, a highly respected publisher and a lovely agent.

I still have a long way to go. I have to finish the writing, I have to prove myself to everyone who has put their trust in me, and I have to get the piecemeal manuscript on my laptop into a real life book. But, with this book deal, I’m one step further along than I was.

I have no advice, sadly. It seems like there is no one clear path. It is not like becoming a lawyer, or an accountant, or a banker. There’s no clear ladder to scramble up with a pot of gold at the end. You do it because you have to, because nothing else will do, because you have some latent faith that, at some point, maybe, you will see your dreams come true.

Out With It: My chameleon book

Out With It started off as a dream, a vague idea of finding myself in the voices of others. To face myself, to spend a year immersed in the subject I had spent a lifetime running away from.

As I started researching I got drawn into 100 lives across America. I spent a year as ‘the interviewer’. I listened to people’s lives, sat in their living rooms, drank their coffee and met their families. I became enchanted by each of them. What made them tick, where did they take their strength from, what worked for them, how did the rest of the world react to them?

I replayed their voices back as I transcribed their words, listened for the intonation in their voices. With my headphones on, blocking out the rest of the world, I was captivated by the variety of their stutterers, the specific cadence of each voice, their unique rhythm.

When I started writing Out With It I wanted to include all of the people I had met. Painfully I narrowed them down to a handful. My picks were neither the best nor the worst. They were just the ones I chose. The book that I wrote was a dedication to all 100 of them.

But it didn’t quite work. The characters didn’t stand out enough. The format of walking into someone’s home, or meeting in a coffee shop or even meeting on the street, started to sound repetitive. I was still hiding behind the stance of ‘the reporter’.

I had spent a year finding out about all these individuals. But, as different as we were, meeting each of them was like looking in a antique mirror. There were pieces where the reflection was dulled, where we didn’t reflect each other so clearly. But we had all worn the same shoes and any differences broadened my understanding, opening my eyes to pieces I hadn’t seen or known before.

What began as a book of oral histories morphed into a memoir. The writing was much more riddled with self-doubt and yet it was honest and vulnerable and I hopefed it would be compelling.

If I’m honest, I probably came to America searching for a cure. Not surprisingly that didn’t go so well but the book is about finding so much more than that. It is about the struggle we all make to accept ourselves as perfectly imperfect.

Struggle to write Out With It

Image courtesy of Don Moyer