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.

Podcast version click the player control below: [display_podcast]

Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists – Use myth to find story

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group ( held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

I went to a workshop for non-fiction writers given by Jack Lule, professor of journalism at Lehigh University, and author of “Daily News, Eternal Stories, the mythological role of journalism.” His talk was about using mythology to write non-fiction stories. I knew I was going to be interested in his ideas, because I have been reading and writing about how to use the Hero’s Journey to help write the story of your life. My ideas on this topic were derived from several books, mainly Joseph Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, as well as other experiences in my workshops, and my own analysis of storytelling. So I was looking forward to hearing what a university professor had to say on this topic. I was not disappointed.

The first thing he did was emphasize the importance of story. This might seem surprising coming from a journalist. Journalists are supposed to just write what they see. Right? But Lule started noticing some news caught fire, and some didn’t. He began looking for the reason for this difference, and he realized that when a story just conveys information, it does not generate energy. The stories that have the most energy are organized as a story, not as “information.”

This is a powerful observation for an aspiring memoirist who is trying to gather the facts of their life and turn them into a good read. But the next problem is the obvious question, “how do you find the story?” I’m glad you asked. Through years of observation, Lule realized that the stories that caught the public’s imagination looked a lot like myths. The idea that myths are built in to our collective consciousness is a familiar perspective to those scholars who study Carl Jung. His ideas have become canonical observations in the cultural and psychological thinking of the twentieth century.

This could be a fabulous insight to help journalists or memoirists who want to organize information into a story. But what good is this information for those of us who have don’t have time to go back to school, or read dozens of books on Greek, Norse, or Celtic mythology, and then derive from all that reading the lessons that could help our writing?

That’s where teachers and writers like Jack Lule come in. Through examples and explanations his book helps us find the “myth power” that fuels the story. Some of the myths he mentioned in his talk are the “trickster”, the “great mother,” and the “hero figure.” Armed with this information, we can then use it to find the myth that applies to our facts. Such insights could help us organize our memoir, make it more compelling and engaging. With the help of Lule’s book, which I immediately bought, I expect to find additional ways to use myth for storytelling. myths that Lule offers.

I’ve already written about the Hero’s Journey in both of my books, Four Elements for Writers, and Learn to Write your Memoir in Four Weeks. Now leaving this workshop I felt that in just 50 minutes, my writing reach had been extended. It was a great way to spend an afternoon, and I expect to be able to make use of this information for the rest of my life.

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

Writing Conference: Tip for Memoirists, memoir as literary non-fiction

by Jerry Waxler

The Greater Lehigh Valley Writers Group ( held its annual meeting April 27-28, 2007, and I found all sorts of valuable writing insights, that I want to share with memoir writers.

As a memoir writer, I am writing about life experience, so it was with eager anticipation that I attended a talk “Writing from life experience” by keynote speaker Gary Fincke, professor of English and Creative Writing at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania, and author of a book called “Amp’d, a father’s back stage pass” about rock and roll bands – not just any rock and roll band, but his son’s. Fincke attended more than 60 concerts, and then wrote a book about his experience. This is a style of reporting called Immersion Journalism. Years ago I read a pioneer in this genre: Tracy Kidder’s “Soul of a New Machine,” in which he moved into a computer lab, and wrote about their development process. The book launched not only Kidder’s career, but also launched an entire genre of what has become known as literary non-fiction.

As a writing teacher and a writer, Fincke thinks a lot about how to write what you see. In his genre of literary non-fiction, he doesn’t have to be a distant observer. He includes himself in the picture. This style of journalism bumps up and begins to overlap with what memoirists try to do. We show the life we lived, a life in which we were active participants. Memoirists are all immersion journalists. We inhabit the world of the protagonist but when we try to report on what we see, there is one difference from journalism. We observe life not through our present eyes, but through our memory.

One of the most interesting tips Fincke offered about how to write about life experience was so simple. It was to “look again.” The first time you see something, you only see the surface. When you look again you see it deeper. Another great piece of advice was to describe things specifically. He didn’t just describe the backstage at every or any rock concert. He described a particular one, the particular smells, the beer cooler, the ratty sofa. And then he said, “Don’t just talk about what you think. Readers want to see and experience things for themselves.” It was all great advice.

Since Fincke will be publishing his memoir early next year, I asked him what are the differences between memoir and journalism. He said one key difference is that in memoir, you want to return to the state of mind that you were in when you originally experienced it. That strikes me as being a significant point.

When you write about something you are observing now, you have more control over your state of mind. I can look up from my computer and describe the two book cases next to me, four shelves each, the uneven way books are lined up, some on top of each other, and the top of the cases piled high with recent acquisitions. I could focus on one book, a chemistry book sits snugly on the shelf. I have not referenced this book for years, while the ones I’m using for my current projects lie heaped in piles on the floor. Because I’m in the present writing about the present, I can dance and weave, playing around all I want with the details, and my feelings about those details, But when I write a memoir, I have to rely on memory. Memory is a strange animal. It can be a beast that snarls, and wants me to remember the hurt first, filtering all facts through the lens of my feelings.

When I studied chemistry in high school, it was not my A subject. I feel myself walking in the hall after class, fearing the other kids understand the material more than I do, and afraid that means they like me less. Am I remembering it because it’s a “real” incident or because in that time, I was always worried about whether I was liked? Now, I look again. This time I see the teacher showing us a supersaturated solution, a clear liquid. He threw in a grain of sand and from the clearness exploded beautiful blue crystals, somehow both jagged and orderly. That transformation from the possible into the real fills me with some subtle hope. Beauty is sometimes hidden, and it just takes a grain of sand to reveal it.

When Gary Fincke’s memoir is published next year, I will look at his two books and see how his observations differ. In Amp’d, he wrote as an immersion journalist, using his current powers of observation to describe his son during those concerts. In the other, his memoir, he observes through the filter of memory. These differences in the way we report reality are issues every memoirist faces.