For the past couple of days, I’ve been chatting with self-published authors Beren deMotier and Mary Hutchings Reed about the joys and trials of self-publishing. So far, the talk has been pretty marketing-oriented, but since I already had two such talented writers in my interviewing clutches, I couldn’t resist turning the talk to broader issues of writing and creativity.
I’m planning another post to share more of Mary and Beren’s marketing insights, of course, but as this particular is weekend ultra-busy for many people, I thought discussion of the more stressful aspects could wait until Monday. (Christmas eve shoppers aren’t going to have to time to read blogs, anyway, right?) And for these deeper topics, I felt a one-on-one discussion would serve our purposes better.
Today, I will be exploring the writing life in general and self-publishing in particular with Beren deMotier, the author of THE BRIDES OF MARCH. It’s a memoir, so we’re going to be talking about the peculiarities of nonfiction as well. To refresh everyone’s memory, here are the bright, shining faces of Beren and her book:
In the interests of full disclosure: I did write a blurb for her book cover. That’s not entirely surprising, considering how we met: I had read her award-winning entry in a prestigious literary contest (rather sensibly, the Organization That Shall Not Be Named places copies of the winners and placers’ entries in the hallway for perusal), and when I later saw Beren’s name on her nametag, I stopped her in another hallway to tell her how impressed I was.
True story, honest. There are witnesses. I’m pretty enthusiastic about good writing.
Anne: Welcome back, Beren! You’re no stranger to the world of online communities, right? You’re a blogger yourself.
Anne: I know that we’ve been talking obliquely about your book for a couple of days now, but as readers often join us in mid-series, pretend that we haven’t. Tell us what your book is about, please.
Beren: I wrote The Brides of March so that readers could ride with us on the roller coaster ride of getting a marriage license (after three kids and seventeen years together), literally running to the church in case of court injunction to get married while it was still legal, then celebrating with friends and family the wedding we’d never expected to experience, even while letters to the editor reviled us, signatures mounted for a constitutional amendment making darned sure no more same-sex marriages happened in Oregon, and nine months later, Oregon voters marked us as “unworthy” of marriage.
Anne: As we editors like to say, you were already a walking memoir. A wild story like yours probably wouldn’t have seemed plausible as fiction.
Beren: But there’s more! The state supreme court was debating whether our marriages were still legal, while the public debated our social status, and we debated whether moving to Canada was the best bet for equality when the 3000 same-sex marriages in Oregon (including ours) were declared null, void, and non-existent. All that wrapped in a slice-of-life memoir of life as a lesbian mom, just trying to get through the day on five Diet Cokes or less.
Anne: Agents often like to be told up front what popular book a potential client’s manuscript resembles, but I have to say, I would be hard-pressed to come up with a close parallel for yours. In my
mind, that’s a good selling point for a memoir, maybe even a great selling point. But since I know that not everyone agrees with me on that point, did the paucity of books on the subject make it harder for you to pitch this book to agents?
Anne: Although I can certainly imagine a misguided agent TRYING to pitch it that way, merely in order to compare it to a couple of bestsellers.
Beren: I came up with the line “A giddy leap through a legal window, straight onto the barbeque pit of public debate,” which about sums it up.
There were no parallel books, and that likely scared off publishers, who have to invest thousands in every book they take on. Keeping in mind that publishers have to put about sixty thousand dollars into each book they accept helped me not take rejections as personally.
Anne: That’s a very sane way to think of it. It’s SO easy to regard rejections as attacks upon one’s very being. But often, it’s simply a matter of the querier or submitter’s simply not giving the agent what she is expecting to see — or what some editor said over lunch last week, “Gee, you know what I would love to read right now? A book like X.”
Beren: I have read a lot of books about writing and pitching, but the best advice has come from agents at writing conferences, specifically the PNWA and Willamette writers conferences, who have told writers to do their research: don’t address letters “Dear Sir” when they are mailing queries to a predominantly female industry, for instance.
Anne: A fact of which many aspiring writers, particularly those querying US agencies from abroad, are not even aware. What other wisdom did you glean?
Beren: Know who takes on your kind of book and target those agents. Write a professional query letter with all the elements an editor or agent needs to know, including genre, length, your credentials and how to contact you.
The other advice I’ve heard that has helped is to remember that editors and agents are people—they may be trying to take care of business, but they are humans and fallible. If you are positive, polite and professional, you’ve just been a high point in their day, even if they can’t work on this project. Keep the door open for the next.
Anne: Oh, that’s SUCH good advice: SO much of the reaction they see from writers is hostile, understandably, and that makes trust harder for everybody. The industry is not very big, and an agent or editor who can’t take on today’s book may well be delighted with tomorrow’s. If I get a really thoughtful rejection, I send a thank-you note.
Since you were pitching a memoir — which, as so many aspiring memoirists apparently aren’t aware, is marketed like nonfiction, via a book proposal, not necessarily as fiction is, via the entire manuscript — I assume that every agent and editor you approached asked you immediately what your platform was. It’s such a hard question for a memoirist to answer, because obviously, each of us is the world’s best authority on our own life, but that’s not the kind of self-evident answer an agent or editor who asks the question wants to hear.
So how did you go about trying to convince them that you were the best person on earth to write this particular story?
Beren: Well, I certainly thought I was the best person on earth to write it! Not only was I there getting married in the moment, I’d had the experience of writing about same-sex marriage for over a decade (I think I’d published twelve columns about it), and had done the research to give it a political context as well as the personal. I’ve specialized in writing in a conversational voice; some have described the book as if a good friend was telling you the story while standing at the edge of a soccer field waiting for your kid. It is accessible.
Anne: That was one of the things that first drew me to the book: the voice was so much fun. Given how frustrating your experience was, it would have been very easy for the voice to become — I hate this term, because it so often applied to any woman with an opinion — strident. It reads as the voice of a very likable friend who gets swept up in larger forces — a great authorial choice for this story, I think.
Beren: From a professional point of view, the thing that made me the best to write it was having hundreds of articles published in newspapers, which gave me a decade to polish my style. I like to call it my apprenticeship. I had started publishing in national magazines, so that I had a built-in readership.
Also, I’d had my website up for quite some time, so it was easy to get a blog started and add a site for the book. One of my biggest personal achievements (besides birthing three babies without painkillers and learning to swim at 35), is to have built my own sites—I’m a terrible technophobe, but I was tired of my high tech industry spouse rolling her eyes at my inability to copy and paste, so I took it on and learned.
Anne: Since writers brand-new to querying and submission often don’t have publications to use in building their platforms, they often have to get a bit creative in coming up with credentials. In retrospect, what would you say was the best thing you ever did to boost your writing resume?
Beren: Contests. I won the Kay Snow Award for my first screenplay — and I would highly recommend learning how to write a screenplay for any kind of writing. Cynthia Whitcomb of Willamette Writers teaches courses, plus has two books out—one on writing screenplays, the other on selling them, that are fantastic.
That screenplay, a family comedy called Chaos, also made a final round in the Writer’s Digest annual screenplay contest, which is pretty good. The Brides of March took second place at the PNWA contest in 2006, and received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards this fall.
The second thing I would say helped was having articles in print. The more you publish the more you can publish, since you have a track record of providing professional material. I worked with one editor on three different publications, which was wonderful, and those added up to writing for Curve magazine, which has a great circulation rate.
Anne: How long did it take you to write this book?
Beren: I started the book in March 2004, and thought I was finished the summer of 2006 and then added a couple more chapters that September.
Anne: That’s a pretty good clip for a memoir. Do you adhere to a regular writing schedule, or are you a wait-for-the-Muse-to-drop-by writer?
Beren: Most of the book was written in our Toyota Sienna minivan while the toddler was napping. I’d drive for about five minutes then park in front of the house and work on my laptop. If you are vigilant, it is amazing what you can get done.
Anne: I find that, too — once you learn to stop saying, “Oh, I have to leave in 20 minutes, so I can’t possibly write anything now,” you can find quite a bit of writing time in the midst of a packed day.
Beren: Having that regular time kept me going. Also, when there was something overwhelming to do, like a major edit or writing promotional copy, I sometimes checked into a hotel for a night or two and did nothing but write, eat, and sleep.
Anne: I do that, too; you actually don’t have to go far away to set up a great writing retreat. Sometimes, it’s as simple as just being where the people who usually need your attention are not for a short period of time. If I ran the universe, every writer would have staff to screen phone calls for her.
Do you take micro writing retreats often?
Beren: I probably did that about five times during the two and a half years before publication. Knowing that the time was designated for that purpose helped me focus. I would start writing at about 8 am, take a break at noon, then work until five, eat dinner, then work until about 11, then do it again the next day.
Anne: Did you run this manuscript past a critique group?
Beren: Writing groups don’t work for me. I’m too thin-skinned during the writing process, and freak out easily. It is better for me to hole up while writing than to share too soon.
Anne: I know a lot of writers who feel that way, but that can result in being even more thin-skinned when it comes time to receive feedback from agents and editors. I recall that you got some real lulus from agents and editors.
Beren: I had comments like “good writing, important story, can’t sell it,” and one editor told me she thought it wasn’t a book—maybe a screenplay?
I have a file with a list of all the agents and editors I contacted, and their letters. For a time I pasted them on the wall (my brother-in-law kindly told me it took 200 “nos” for one “yes”) but decided I didn’t want to focus on the negative. It is good to know I survived them, though, and kept writing and working on getting the book published.
Anne: It’s funny how one picks up habits, growing up in a writing family — we only learned recently that we share that background. The rejections posted above the desk was a familiar sight for a lot of us. Both Philip [K. Dick] and my mother favored it; it was fashionable as a motivational technique in the 1940s and 50s. My father was from an older generation of writers, and he thought it was a really bad idea; I guess that writers had enough bad news on their minds during the Great Depression.
I have to say, I’m with him: the last thing I want to see every time I sit down to work is a whole bunch of “NO!” staring at me.
Speaking of support systems, have your writer friends been supportive of your decision to self-publish? I have a very distinct recollection that my first reaction was to try to talk you out of it until I learned just how widely you had submitted the book.
Beren: Yes, they have been supportive, more than non-writer friends, who have a vision of the publishing world that doesn’t come close to reality, and have the understandable view of vanity publishing—there is the first reaction of “Oh!” to hearing you have a book out, but when they learn it is self-published, it changes to, “Ah.”
Anne: I know precisely the tone shift you mean. As if the publishing industry were motivated solely by book quality, so any difficulty landing an agent must necessarily be a commentary on writing quality. In real life, it just doesn’t work like that.
Beren: I’ve had several published authors tell me self-publication is the wave of the future, and the book became more “real” to doubting friends or relatives when it received reviews, when I was interviewed on the radio or did a reading. That made it a real book.
Anne: Ooh, that’s a distinction that drives me nuts — manuscripts are real, too; I hardly think that I imagine the piles of them in my office, or in my agent’s.
But back to the notion of self-publishing’s being the coming thing: it’s certainly becoming more and more respected. Especially with books not aimed at a mainstream market.
Beren: Gay & lesbian memoirs are often self-published, because there are so few outlets, and because we all have a story to tell. Because of the need to actually “come out” at some point, I think there is a greater willingness to put it all out there in writing, so there is a slew of self-published memoir and fiction by gay & lesbian writers. How the quality holds up, I don’t know, because I’ve been on a murder mystery bender for the last thirty years.
Anne: And yet in a lot of people’s minds, there is still a stigma automatically attached to a self-published book.
Beren: I think the stigma is still there; I know that I came into this with it hanging over my head. However, things are changing, especially since self-published manuals and specialty professional books have become so common. There are established examples of books that were self-published and great, so that makes people believe it could be the case with your book.
Blogging is certainly changing minds about the power of self-publishing, both by demystifying the writing and publishing process, and by making it clear that there is a LOT of competition for readership.
Anne: Hoo boy, yes. The publishing industry has been kind of slow to realize that — even now, a blogger often needs to be mentioned in the New York Times before she’s considered to have a viable audience, even if literally millions of people have been dropping by her blog regularly for a year or two.
What do you most wish you had known about self-publishing before you committed to it? Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently?
Beren: I wish I’d done it earlier, and not waited so long for a traditional publishing contract.
Anne: That’s interesting.
Beren: With such a current social topic, it would have been advantageous to get the book out sooner. But it is a big investment; sometimes it is hard to bring yourself to throw more time and money into a writing project when there has been no reward.
Self-publishing successfully takes lots of work — it is a leap of faith.
Also, I began querying agents and editors soon after starting it, but the book I pitched at them changed significantly during the writing; it began as a celebratory piece and ended up a roller coaster ride.
Anne: Was there anything about the process that completely surprised you, pleasantly or otherwise?
Beren:There is nothing like seeing your book on a bookstore or library shelf, and knowing it is being read. However it happens, it’s a miracle.
Anne: That seems like a pretty good note to end upon for today. Thanks, Beren!
And keep up the good work, everybody!
Beren deMotier has written humor/social commentary for Curve, And Baby, Pride Parenting, Greenlight.com, www.ehow.com, as well as for GLBT newspapers across the nation. She’s written about same-sex marriage for over a decade, and couldn’t resist writing the bride’s eye view after marrying in Multnomah County. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her spouse of twenty-one years, their three children, and a Labrador the size of a small horse.