How to get your memoir published

After you have toiled and tinkered and revised for ages, and you feel you finally have a strong manuscript, you begin to wonder how on earth to get your book into print.

I always tell people, if you think your memoir has commercial potential (the rule of thumb I’ve heard lately is: it will sell 20,00 copies right off the bat), a good plan might be to give yourself six months, or three, or a year (depending on your stamina) to try to get it published via the agent and New York publishing house route. Also, if you happen to have excellent contacts in New York, or can muster some, this can be a good choice. It goes (almost) without saying that that is a tough world, and even really exquisite, top-drawer literary manuscripts fail to find a New York publisher. It also goes without saying that unless you have had a very unusual life—you were raised by wolves or by head-hunters (having murder, incest, or substance abuse in your family is now probably passé)–or are as brilliant as Einstein or Brad Pitt’s dresser, it may be a hard road.   I don’t know who said that trying to find a publisher is as hard as, or even harder than, finding a mate—but this wasn’t an overstatement. But everyone ought to have a go. There are all the obvious potential advantages if this happens to work for you—a six figure advance, wide distribution of your printed book, a review in the New York Times, TV appearances, fame and fortune. Mind you, these benefits arrive for the very few even among those who do get a New York publisher.

Okay, now, if after six months, or three, you tire of the rejection letters, don’t feel ashamed and shrink into depression. Remember that Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected twelve times before a small British publisher took a chance on it—and then only at the urging of the publisher’s daughter!

The next step is to look for a smaller publishing house. The university presses may be an option for your book, or a specialty publisher—a publisher that prints only sailing books would be a good bet if you were born and grew up on a sailboat, for instance–or one of the independent presses, of which there is an ever-increasing number. Buy yourself a copy of Writer’s Market or go through it at the library, and feret out the publishers that take your sort of book. Send your query or proposal to them.

If the latter doesn’t appeal or yields no fruit, self-publishing has become a very respectable and blissful alternative. As for respectability, in the democratic domain of the internet, quality speaks for itself. Sneerers and snobs beware. On the bliss side, self-publishing is far faster than traditional publishing, and you have more control over the product. You can make your small or weighty volume into just the book you want! Also, since traditional publishers only really market a very few of their titles and leave most to maunder in a quick grave, you must do all the marketing yourself, whether New York- or self-published, so there is no advantage to traditional publishing on that score. In fact, if you are published by a New York house and are not a million dollar author, you may be driven mad by the lack of marketing assistance. You will be assailed and tortured by one of the mysteries of the late 20th and 21st centuries: Why, once publishers have gone to the trouble of printing a book do they do nothing to sell it??? Finer minds than yours and mine have tackled this puzzle…

So, back to self-publishing: do your homework here and find the least expensive option, and the one with the best terms. Admittedly, self-publishing involves work and thought. You’ll probably need a copy editor along the way, and you’ll probably want to think about design, photos, and cover, for instance, but, approached with a spirit of adventure and creativity, this can be great fun.

The upshot is: one way or another, you can and will see your memoir between covers. All that toil through storm-wracked seas will finally toss a jewel on the shore. Pick it up. Hold it in your hands, and, dripping, savor the pleasure.

This piece was published on the wonderful website Women Writers, Women’s Books:

Originally posted on Friday, October 25th, 2013

On Writing: Creativity and the Will

Many of my students fret about not having enough will power, enough will to bring their creative work into being.  Others worry about the idleness that creative writing seems to require.  They find that “unproductive” mental wandering hard to justify, when they ought, rather, to be accomplishing something.

Here are some thoughts on the will and creativity from Lewis Hyde, author of the fascinating book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  Hyde’s perspectives should help writers who question their right to the free-floating suspension that seems necessary to their creative work.  They may also invite writers to hold at bay traditional American notions about, and emphasis on, willpower and productivity.  The will is so powerful and domineering, Hyde proposes, that it actually endangers creativity.  We all know how dictatorial is the call to task-completion, while the call to create has a gentle voice.

Hyde writes:

There are at least two phases in the completion of a work of art, one in which the will is suspended and another in which it is active.  The suspension is primary.  It is when the will is slack that we feel moved or we are struck by an event, intuition, or image.  The materia must begin to flow before it can be worked, and not only is the will powerless to initiate that flow, but it actually seems to interfere, for artists have traditionally used devices—drugs, fasting, trances, sleep deprivation, dancing—to suspend the will so that something “other” may come forward.  When the material finally appears, it is usually in a jumble, personally moving, perhaps, but not much use to someone else—not, at any rate, a work of art.  There are exceptions, but the initial formulation of a work is rarely satisfactory—satisfactory, I mean, to the imagination itself, for, like a person who must struggle to say what he means, the imagination stutters toward the clear articulation of its feeling.  The will has the power to carry the material back to the imagination and contain it while it is re-formed.  The will does not create the “germinating image” of the work, nor does it give the work its form, but it does provide the energy and the directed attention called for by a dialogue with the imagination.   

In this next passage, Hyde refers to virtu.  This he calls as an organizing force in art “corresponding to that which has given swansdown its beauty.”

There are times when the will should be suspended, Hyde says:

 …For when the will dominates, there is no gap through which grace may enter, no break in the ordered stride for error to escape, no way by which a barren prince may receive the virtu of his people, and for an artist, no moment of receptiveness which the engendering images may come forward.

Any artist who develops the will risks its hegemony.  If he is at all wary of that sympathy by which we become receptive to things beyond the self, he may not encourage the will to abandon its position when its powers are exhausted.  Willpower has a tendency to usurp the functions of imagination, particularly in a man in a patriarchy…when the will works in isolation, it turns of necessity to dictionary studies, syntactical tricks, intellectual formulae, memory, history, and convention—any course of material, that is, which can imitate the fruits of the imagination without actually allowing them to emerge…The will knows about survival and endurance; it can direct attention and energy; it can finish things.  But we cannot remember a tune or a dream on willpower.  We cannot stay awake on willpower.   Will may direct virtu but it cannot bring it into the world. The will by itself cannot heal the soul.  It cannot create.

Originally posted Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

Writing is a Humiliation Banquet

Please find here my piece recently published on She Writes, a wonderful website  for women writers.

NOTE: If you go to the post on that site you’ll find wonderful, funny, entertaining comments from readers in response to this humor piece.  Also, my dear friend, the brilliant writer, Catherine Mayo, wrote a response giving her own wise and funny and helpful perspectives on the humiliations that come with publication.  Here is her website, Madam Mayo, which is packed with goodies for writers:

Here is the piece itself:

Writing is a humiliation banquet.  It is time that everyone who reads books or counts a writer a friend be acquainted with the menu of this exclusive club:


Plat du Jour


Rot-Gut Wine

The pitying looks, false cheer, and stumbling superlatives, handed to you by fellow students at writers workshops, and your own friends or family, upon the first tentative sharing of your work, who let you know, though they wear little smiles on their faces, that they consider your writing very poor indeed.  Welcome to this oh-so-shi-shi club.


Clams on Toast

 The platitudes offered you by agents who turn down your work with responses such as “Memoirs by women aren’t selling this year.”

Wilted Celery Sticks          

 The rejection notices from publishers who write that your book, while impressive, is “not quite right for us.”


 Thin Gruel   

 The fact that, though, by some miracle, your book is now published, it receives no reviews.


Chopped Liver        

The time you are presenting your work on a panel of four writers, and the good-looking young man who just told stories, and read not a word of his writing, is rewarded with long lines of buyers, while you have none—and just to add a bit of sauce, you have to buy your own book in order to trade books with the other panelists at the end of the event.



The kindly looks of writer friends who have looked up your sales on Amazon—something you studiously avoid—and let you know, in so many words, that their sales have surpassed yours.

Poached Tongue                

The kindly looks of writer friends who let drop the number of new twitter followers they get every seven seconds.

Stewed Prunes

The confit you must swallow when you show up at a bookstore for a reading and there is no audience, or there is one psychotic man pulling flies from the air and a ten year-old, and you have to decide whether to put your chin up, smile, and read, or find a hole to vomit into.


The sweet, ingratiating smiles from well-meaning people, at whom you must smile graciously when they tell you they are so eager to read the book you worked on for ten years at less than slave wages, and will get it from the library.

Bitter Cabbage                   

The other well-meaning people who, thinking they are helping you and not knowing, perhaps, that you have to buy your own book, tell you they want to give your book to someone who will love it, and could just you send them one to give to the friend for a gift?


Killer Sundae                      

The kindly meant but misguided question put to you by your very best friends, and everyone else, after your book comes out: “How is the book doing?”  The friends have no idea how this scrapes the writer’s oozing, ever-raw wounds.  “How is the book doing?”  Now what does that “doing” mean?  People mean well, they are not really thinking, but I’m pretty sure that sentence means, if I am not mistaken (and writers eating this daily humiliation fare can most certainly be deranged), “How much money are you making?”  Or: “Just how worthwhile an author are you?”  The same goes for “What was the print run?”   This is the question, the cherry on top that some people who really badly want to know how much you have made, push on to ask.  Who else do we greet by asking how much money they are making?

Here is the truth, the secret answer to that eager question, “How is the book doing?”  Let me herewith dispense with the common illusion held by those outside the club: that writers make money.  These are the facts: Advances for books are minuscule for most writers: from $0 to $25,000.  Bottom line: not enough to live on even for one year.  Seven out of ten books do not make even these tiny advances back, so seven out of ten writers receive no royalties at all.  As for royalties, a writer typically receives ten percent  of the cover price for the first 250,000 copies sold.  This means, for a book listed for $25, the writer will receive, if the advance has been earned back, $2.50 per book.

And as for sales ambitions, everyone assumes—in this America where we believe we can achieve anything we put our minds to and where anyone not a millionaire just isn’t working hard enough or is a self-promotion wimp—that every author any good would be making sales in the six figures.  Publisher’s Weekly reported in January, 2012 that the average U.S. nonfiction book now sells fewer than 250 copies per year, and fewer than 3000 over its lifetime.  And moreover, as the wonderful, best-selling author Anne Lamott has said—to paraphrase her—no matter how much praise you receive or how high your royalties are, it is never enough to feel worthy in this measure-people-by-money land we live in.  Whenever you look up your sales, it is humiliating because, as she would probably put it: if you’re any good, you should make as much as God would if she’d written a book.  Keep in mind that Virginia Woolf hoped fervently that one of her books might sell 500 copies.  I won’t go into why the books that do sell, sell, but it is not always their literary quality.


Stiff Brandy             

The last, fast gulp of the dawn-to-dusk humiliation, of spending your time in an activity that everyone in America views as self-indulgent unless you are making the income of Stephen King.  Let me tell you, writers are afflicted beings—afflicted with the need to make arrangements of words.  They have to do it, like others have to eat donuts, but they sacrifice financial security and suffer daily, second-by-second humiliation to put forth their scribbling to the world.

“Writing is like prostitution,” a wise friend and wonderful writer commented to me recently.  As a writer, you strip down, put out your best wares for all to see, and stand there at the corner, being brave, sucking in your belly, hoping to get a sale.  And each moment of each day on that corner, even when you know you’re looking your best and you’ve produced something of real quality, you are subject to mortifying humiliation.

So when you see your writer friend next time, know she is dining on celery sticks, gruel and stewed prunes.  Buy her a real meal.

Originally posted Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

The Memoir-Writing Process: A most rewarding journey

Often, while in the possession of the demon called the memoir, there is a sense of a brain burning too bright, like Van Gogh’s.  There have been moments—brief but flashy–when I thought it might drive me mad.  Re-living the hard stuff can bring you close to the brink.

And then there is the downer of coming up against real life: like when the insightful adolescent in your head comes up against the boring, stupid adolescent-you of the diaries you dig out; like when you make contacts with old friends  who seem too strange to touch, or too disappointing, or even frightening.  Interactions with a couple of old friends have changed the actual content of my memoir.  One contact fired it up.  The other, with a friend of whom I was once fond, was so bitter, I eliminated the person from the book.

And finally, there is the disappointment of finding out that when you are in the mood to re-contact people, or when you are in the wistful, nostalgic mood, your old friends are not.  They went through all that, and purged, long ago, or aren’t yet ready to touch the fire.  No one is back there where you are, when you are.  This brings you to think: How alone we all are.  And yet how vivid everyone is, and how clamorous and crowded the life while writing.

All in all, despite it all, memoir-writing: a most rewarding obsession.

Originally posted on Monday, December 3rd, 2012

The Memoir-Writing Process: Prone to fits of idiocy

Write a memoir at your hazard.  It is a precarious activity.  One that makes you prone to embarrassing yourself.  All the awkwardness, the idiocy of youth come flooding back, and, believe me, you suddenly really are fourteen.  You do stupid things, you act weird, because it’s like you’re half your forty-nine year-old self and half- your fourteen year-old self and you lurch around in your harlequin garb, unable to stand.  One moment you’re tongue-tied at the edge of the dance floor, the next you’re pitching to the torrents, pulses, surges, and swayings of first love.  In the course of the writing, when operating under the influence of my mixed selves, I have put three feet in my mouth (the urge to self-humiliation was so great, I needed a spare), acted mentally ill, become a lovesick puppy, and delivered lectures, mature as Athena, all at once.

Originally poster on Monday, November 26th, 2012