Next Big Thing Blog Hop

My blog this week is looking a wee bit different from normal because I’m taking part in something called the Next Big Thing blog hop.

Essentially writers across the world are invited to answer questions about what they’re working on so readers can discover new authors. This week, I’m it.

Last week I was “tagged” by Jennifer Miller, author of The Year of the Gadfly.  In her words, her book is about “a quirky teenage journalist and a microbiologist running from his past who investigate a secret society in their remote New England town. “ Sound intriguing? Check out there rest of her answers on her Facebook page.

Here is my Next Big Thing:

Out With ItWhat is the working title of your book?

My editor, my agent, my fiancé and I all sprouted a couple grey hairs coming up with the title. It took us months but finally we came up with Out With It: How Stuttering Helped Me Find My Voice.

Where did the idea come from?

When I left my job in London in September 2008 I wanted to immerse myself in stuttering, to meet other stutterers, researchers and therapists and finally face my biggest fear. Perhaps I even hoped that I would stumble on a cure. I decided that I would interview 100 people and then create a book of oral histories that would debunk all the misconceptions around stuttering. Gradually the book evolved into an investigative memoir. I held on to the voices of everyone I interviewed, but I made my life the structure that all our stories hung from.

What genre does your book fall under?

Creative non-fiction, memoir, education, perhaps even self-help.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book? 

A vivid memoir of a young woman who fought for years to change who she was until she finally found her voice and learned to embrace her imperfection.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

My book will be published by the Atria division of Simon and Schuster on April 16th 2013.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I moved to America to start researching the book in October 2008. I started writing in late 2009 and handed in the first draft to my editor in January 2012. In short, a very long time!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

This is the first memoir about stuttering written by a woman but it is similar to a vast number of books that deal honestly, humorously and poignantly with subjects that our society does not always like to confront. If you liked WILD, LIT, Look Me in the Eye or QUIET, hopefully you’ll like Out With It.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to change the conversation, to unearth something that had remained taboo for far too long, to stop hiding and encourage others to do the same.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Although the book is about stuttering, it is really about all of us, about all of the ways we are scared and courageous and perfectly imperfect.

Be sure to check out Jennifer Miller and go to Leigh Stein’s blog at leighstein.tumblr.com to read their Blog Hop answers.

Memoir: Under Attack

memoir writing: we all have a story to tellOn New Year’s Eve Susan Shapiro, an author and college journalism teacher, wrote a piece for the New York Times’ Opinionator explaining that, over 20 years of teaching, her signature assignment has become the humiliation essay. It is her way of giving her students what they want, setting them on the path to publish essays and sell memoirs.

The piece sparked a host of debate, reigniting the well-worn argument that the personal essay is killing journalism. Punches were thrown across the web, insults typed and sides taken.

As someone who has a memoir coming out in 4 months, I read Hamilton Nolan’s Gawker response to Shapiro’s piece in a state of near numbness. My eyes stuck on the line that most people’s lives are not interesting enough for a memoir or personal essay and I gulped down his assertion that those writers who start by writing about themselves “end up like bands that used their entire lifetime’s worth of good material in their first album, and then sputtered uselessly when it came time for the follow-up.”

Used-up, finished, uninteresting – hardly a hopeful start to a writing career that has yet to hit the shelves.

And yet, it’s noise I’ve already heard, lines that have already played on repeat in my own head for years. Self-doubt is nothing new. I was never trained as a writer, barely trained as a journalist, and I never set out to write a memoir. I set out to listen to hundreds of stutterers and researchers and write something worthwhile. These people had stories, fascinating lives that made me sit forward in my seat and stay up all night transcribing their words. As I wrote their words down on paper I barely wove myself between the lines. But, in the end, I felt like I was hiding. I felt like I was asking everyone else to bare their souls while I sat safely nodding on the other side of the tape recorder.

So I kept their voices in the book but made my life the structure, made my life the line that all our stories hung from. But I was never aiming to humiliate myself, I wasn’t trying to make anyone feel sorry for me, for any of us. Rather, I was trying to unearth something that had remained taboo for far too long.

I was attempting to write in the memoir tradition of the writer’s I adored. Writers like Strayed, Karr, Walls and Flynn. Far from the inward-looking narcissists that Nolan dismisses so eagerly, these are people who write about themselves with humanity and who look outward to encompass the world we all live in. As Stephen Elliot puts it, they are the type of writers who “inhale their surroundings.”

So perhaps we shouldn’t be shaming those people who write about themselves but rather all of us should hold ourselves to the highest standards in both our writing and our lives. If we can be thoughtful in all of that then, perhaps, we can rise to meet our collective potential.

Judging a book by its cover

The book has a title. It is bold, intriguing and memorable. Now we just have to find a cover to match.

Cover designs are not at all easy to come up with. It seems like the best ones draw you in, they persuade you to start the journey and they convey the story’s essence. The most poignant and beautiful covers are pieces of art, they remind us why we still cling to ‘real’ books.

Our designer has been working on images for weeks now. Finally, I think we have a winner. It is something I’m proud to hold in my hand, a image that mirrors the story, a cover that I think I’d be drawn to on the book shelf. I’ll share it with you as soon as I get the final thumbs up from my editor but, in the meantime, here is a very subjective collection of some of my favourite covers to date. I love simple designs, strong colours, surprise, quirkiness and a design that tells me what to expect, what sort of a story I’m sitting down to read:

The Great Gatsby book covercatcher in the rye book covera clockwork orange book coverjaws book coverloneliness book coverThe Brief History Of The Dead coverzoo city cover

when_you_are_engulfed_in_flames cover

What about you? Do you have any favorite book covers?

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…

Improving your writing & becoming a great storyteller

Most of us experience doubt at some point in our creative lives and all of us are constantly striving to improve. So, how do you make your work match your ambitions? How do you make yourself a great writer?

First, you need to love writing and you need to know what good writing is. As Ira Glass explains, most people get into creative work because they have good taste. They may not be able to create great work immediately, but they know it when they see it. You have to read enough to know what good language tastes like, what it feels like on the page. Even Hunter S. Thompson used to type out pages from “The Great Gatsby” just to feel what it was like to write like Fitzgerald.

You need to understand the rules. You need to understand structure and character development and plot and the cadence of spoken language. You can get that from reading, from asking questions, from taking lessons, from whatever source you fancy, but you need to make yourself an expert in your chosen field.  Then, once you know the rules, you can break out of the structure, or choose stay with in it. You can be as creative as your imagination will allow.

You need to see your writing as a job, a skill that you want to hone. You don’t have to write on a typewriter, or only write great work, or ask for others praise. You just have to write. You have to write every day. You have to have faith that the rubbish you are putting down on paper will gradually improve into something you can be proud of.

It may take you years but, once you have created something that you don’t hate, you should start to get feedback. Start off with your mum or your best friend if you want. Give yourself a little confidence boost. Then choose people from your field and ask them to be brutally honest. Heed their advice. Edit. Show them again. Try not to be destabilized by negative reactions. Start again if you have to. Push yourself to improve. Don’t give yourself a hard time if it takes a while. That’s normal. Keep going. Finally, be proud of yourself. Be proud that you stuck with it. Be proud that you have created a piece of work that you don’t hate, something that know is pretty great.

That’s my advice but what do you think? How do you make your work as good as your ambitions?

Check out this great video made to the words of Ira Glass: