Bookstores provide valuable information for memoir writers

by Jerry Waxler

According to successful author, Jonathan Maberry, from whom I have taken many writing courses, “despite the power of online marketing, bookstores still provide vital information to any writer who wants to get their work into print. By exploring bookstores, you can find what’s hot and get ideas for your own work.” Last year, to learn more about memoirs, I followed his advice and went to the bookstore.

I was disappointed to see books written by people about themselves muddled together with books written by historians or celebrity watchers. The Biography and Memoir section contained mainly books about kings, presidents, generals, and movie stars, interspersed with some blockbuster memoirs like Tobias Wolff’s “This Boys Life” and Jeanette Walls’ “Glass Castle.” I had little interest in Biographies at the time, and found it clumsy to pick through the shelves to find the few memoirs.

However, since that first visit, memoirs have gained considerable respect from booksellers. Every time I go to the store, there are one or two fewer biographies, and one or two more memoirs. In fact, it’s now closer to an even mix, and memoirs have even pulled out in front with a table in the aisle devoted to the latest offerings.

For example, this week I picked up “A Three Dog Life,” by Abigail Thomas, about a woman’s relationship to a husband who has lost his mind in a car crash. Being with him is similar to living with someone who has the cognitive deficits of Alzheimer’s. But unlike Alzheimer’s, his tragedy happened in an instant, shifting her role overnight from a loving partner to fulltime caregiver. It’s a human tragedy both frightening and compelling, and the book offers me exactly what I seek from memoirs: an opportunity to emotionally share a life outside my personal experience.

I was helped in my purchasing decision by a testimonial on the front cover from none other than the king of the bookstores, Stephen King himself, who called it “the best memoir I have ever read.” His recommendation pushed me to the next step and I opened the book to check out the writing. I found it to be haunting and compelling. So I paid for it.

If you want to write for the public, try this as an exercise. When you walk into a book store, take advantage of that out-of-body training you received in astral-projection school. Float up a few feet and watch yourself scanning the shelves. Which ones catch your eye? Why did you reach out and pick one up? Which part of the cover copy gets you to read further or put it back? Use these observations to imagine the way you would present your own story. If you can see yourself picking up your own book and wanting to know more, your observations provide valuable information about how to achieve success.

After browsing the memoir and biography section, I strolled over to the books about writing. (I’ve never understood why they call this section “Reference” but that’s often the way it is.) There I scored another hit. Unlike last year, when the books about writing a memoir were skimpy (I recall seeing only one), this time I saw a half a dozen, another indication that this trend in publishing continues to grow. While browsing, I stumbled across an interesting looking book called “How to do Biography,” by Nigel Hamilton. This turns out to be a wonderful find. (“Luck favors the industrious,” or something like that.)

While I’ve been annoyed with all those biographies on the “Memoir and Biography” shelf, I’ve recently become more interested in learning what those authors can teach me. They must have an enormous amount of information about how to turn a life into a story. Of course, since biographies are written by someone else, they don’t have the same introspective slant. And since the genre often tends more towards historical facts than towards story telling, there are other differences. But surely there are many areas of overlap.

To help me understand this process, I’ve joined the Association of Personal Historians, an organization whose charter is to help other people tell their story. Personal historians, by helping someone write their memoir, live somewhere in the middle between the two genres. Joining the organization will give me access to their shared expertise. And it looks like this book “How to Do Biography” is going to offer an overview of the whole subject. From the first few chapters which I have already devoured, it appears to be accessible, and informative, offering history and insights into the whole project of life-into-story, including chapters on autobiography and memoir.

Finally, I browsed the magazine rack, and to my surprise scored again. There was a magazine in the literary section with the peculiarly punctuated title of “Memoir, (and).” This is a journal devoted to memoir writing, including poetry, photography, essays, and so on. This was proof that the trend towards memoirs continues to grow, and the resources and outlets are richer than ever. Hopefully my purchases will help keep my local bricks and mortar bookstore open, so I can go and actually touch books, open them, and see which ones I like.

To reach readers, learn from writers

by Jerry Waxler

(You can listen to the podcast version by clicking the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

It takes skill and courage to write a memoir, and then like trees falling in the forest, our intimate stories thunder silently on the page, until someone reads them. Persuading others to read what we’ve written seems daunting and foreign, unrelated to the central project. And so when writers get together, in addition to discussing their craft, they also ponder the challenges of reaching readers.

Take for example the Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I recently attended their annual meeting, along with about 150 of my fellow writers and aspiring writers. The first session in the conference was a panel of four literary agents who had trekked down from the New York area. Agents often turn up at writing conferences, like scouts looking for the latest talent, which is one of the reasons aspiring writers attend such events. Once you convince an agent your book is worthy, they take it around to publishers and try to sell it. When the publisher bites, the book lands in bookstores where lots of readers buy it and everyone wins.

As a volunteer at the conference, I moderated the panel, took questions from the audience and asked some of my own. There were not many surprises, and in the end, the information from such panels can be found in magazine articles on the subject. “Write well.” “Increase your credentials, so publishers and readers trust you.” And by the way, beware of agents who ask you for money. The industry standard is that they make money only after the sale. Each year, I study the agents for some clue as to what makes them tick, and each year I become more aware of their human side. Agents are people. They want to be treated with respect, and since they are going to represent you, they want to believe in you and your work. Ultimately, the agent becomes an emissary and ally.

At most conferences, writers have an opportunity to briefly interview an agent, a compact 10 minutes in which to reach towards fame. My meeting was with Stephany Evans, the president of the FinePrint Literary Management agency. She reiterated the familiar point that in addition to good writing, publishers expect writers to come equipped with an audience. It sounds crazy, and yet, when Stephanie explained it with a warm regard, accompanied by specific information and advice, she transformed the news from a death blow to a challenge. When I tap into the human aspect of the publishing business, I find it all rather exciting.

Another insight into the business end of writing came from keynote speaker Jonathan Maberry, author of award winning supernatural thriller “Ghost Road Blues.” The title of Maberry’s keynote speech was “I can write that.” Jonathan explained that throughout his 30-year writing career, when deciding what to write, he let the almighty paycheck be his guide. If they were willing to pay for it, he was willing to write it. This sounds incredibly materialistic, and yet once the paycheck is in hand, Maberry shifts his focus to creativity, pouring himself towards his audience with the passion of a performer.

If you think looking for a paycheck makes a statement about Maberry’s selfishness quotient, consider this. When he mentioned that he had written or sold something like eight books in the last couple of years, someone asked Maberry how he explains his tireless energy. “A few years ago, my career was on the rocks, and my wife, Sara, enrolled me in a writing class, not to further my writing, but to connect me with other writers. It worked. Once I began hanging around with writers, my career took off. You all are the reason I have succeeded.” His expansive gesture towards the audience filled me with a sense of connection with him, with the writing project, and with my fellow writers.

Someone else asked him how he handles the feeling of jealousy when he meets someone more successful than himself. He said, “I never see writing as competitive. The more you succeed, the more I succeed. If it turns out there are a whole row full of bio-terrorism thrillers on the shelf next to mine, that’s not my competition. That actually helps me sell more books.” Jonathan is always a great listen, in a larger audience, as well as in workshops and in one on one coaching sessions. And as the winner of the most prestigious award in genre writing, the Bram Stoker award, he is an acclaimed writer as well.

Every time I attend a writing conference, like Maberry, I too feel lifted and recharged, which is why I am currently on the board of two writers conferences. And I’ve even tried starting a few groups of my own. And at each meeting, while I am learning craft from other writers, and feeling the camaraderie of their company, I am also letting people like Jonathan Maberry and Stephany Evans, remind me that if I want to find lots of readers I have to learn how to reach out to them.

For more information about hundreds of writing conferences, check out Shaw Guides.

The other regional writing conference where I volunteer as a board member is the Philadelphia Writers Conference. Their 2008 meeting is June 6-8.

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