The Path to Publication, part 6: What is Creative Non-fiction?

imageWriting is like building a spider’s web. Create a point of connection, attach it to another, and another, until a whole network — a piece of art; a story — has been built.

Each point of learning, each experience, each conversation, each sentence I write is slowly building a story, the overall design of which, although I am the one writing it, is as yet unclear.

Although this post isn’t specifically about publication, it is very much a part of my journey of learning; more points of connection in this web that is my story.

It’s now a week since I returned from the writing conference — and what a week it was! I somehow beat my own writing record (not something I was intending to do and won’t be in a hurry to try again) and researched and submitted three articles in less than 24 hours. By the time I hit send on that feature story at 5pm on Thursday, I was as tired as when I hiked up and back down Vermont’s highest mountain (another feat I’m not in any rush to repeat).

Today, it felt justifiable to take a day off from the freelancing frenzy to sit in the sun and do a little blogging. And to revisit these pages of notes from the conference. So let’s talk about the overall Creative Nonfiction, the fastest growing genre — and my genre — for a moment.

What is Creative Nonfiction?

Well, I’m glad you asked! Lee Gutkind, founder of the Creative Nonfiction magazine had some gems to share on this topic. Here is a mixture of his points (direct quotes are his) and my analysis:

Creative Nonfiction:

Knowledge through Narrative: “Telling stories that matter to the world.”

Stories with Substance: It is a balance of personal experience and a sharing of information (the emphasis being on the substance/information). You share your story in order to tell a larger story.

Like fiction, it must have characters, scenes, plot, climax, resolution. But above all, it must relay information — teach something (NOT preach something).

Why CNF?

“The brain is wired for story.” Humans naturally create stories about everything in our world.

It teaches us empathy through personal connection and resonance. When a story appeals to our feelings we will remember the information. When a writer shares their “obsessions” and the particular world they are immersed in — be that a medical situation, a home-building project, acts of activism, etc. — they will always find an unique twist on the subject even if it has been covered before, because it is through the author’s unique eyes/experience that it is now being seen.

And Memoir?

The private story + the public one with reflection on what it all means, i.e. WHY I am telling you my story.

To read snippets of my memoir, “Leaving Fundamentalism in Search of  Voice,” click here.

The Path to Publication, part 5: Writing from “home”

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(Number 2 of 3 posts on the Creative Nonfiction conference in Pittsburgh, PA, May 23-25, 2014)

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in needing time to recoup and process after downloading a bunch of information. After a conference, for example, I need time to transition back to regular life, as well as time to assimilate all that I’ve heard and learned. For me, this process of assimilating usually includes writing. I write in my journal and/or blog post. As was Anais Nin’s reason for writing, I write in order to “taste life twice,” and for me, the second time is when I truly savor all the juices and unique flavors.

I took copious notes on day two of the Creative Nonfiction conference, but I have yet to re-read and properly digest them (and I will share some things in an upcoming post). So, this post is my attempt at crystallizing how I feel, not what I learned.

How do I feel? One word: Validated.

I’ve made some decisions over the past couple of months that are both scary and freakin’ exciting. And as I have mentioned in previous posts, as soon as I made these decisions, the Universe opened up and seemed to say, “OK!” Learning about this conference and then actually being able to attend it were major components of this opening. New stones were laid down on my path towards this new life to which I appear to be headed. Then what I heard at the conference seemed to further stabilize the path.

As I listened, and spoke personally, to the various editors and author presenters over Friday and Saturday, these were my points of validation:

1.  Creative Nonfiction, and specifically Memoir, is a genre that is “hot” and growing all the time. While at one time personal essays/narratives were practically unknown, and memoir was hidden in works of fiction, the personal narrative is now everywhere. Writers in every field are “teaching”  — informing — through story.

2. The new wave of memoir — a genre that took off in the mid-90s — now has this added dimension: Research. Memoirs and personal stories are not just about telling a good story anymore, they need to have substance. They need to be about something. As I just said, they now teach and inform on a subject.

When I began writing, I had no name for the style I was producing. But I was just writing the only thing I knew: my experience.I was writing where I most felt at home — comfortable and most myself. Authentic.

Journaling didn’t seem like “real” writing at that time, but I have since come to recognize that day to day observations of life and feelings are the bedrock to understanding the world around me. How I feel about a subject, whether it is political, social, or intensely personal, has to be worked out in the journal first so I can then write to, and resonate with, a larger audience.

Now the style in which I write has a name and an audience. I write local interest and history stories for my town paper, writing-for-well-being posts for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and my own memoir pieces, all of which need my personal insight, feelings, and (human) experience in order for others to relate,  to learn, and to be informed by them — rather than them just being narcissistic pieces of “feel good” for me. What truly makes me feel good is when I hear that my writing has inspired someone else. Then I know it has fully served its purpose: helped me — as the act of putting words to experience and emotion does — and helped others.

My memoir is the story of a girl who lost her voice/self as a result of religious indoctrination and leaving her home country, and the woman who found it again. It’s a pretty good story in itself, but I had recently decided to incorporate my research into a feminine-centered spirituality and women’s psychological development. This decision has been validated. A new genre of which I knew nothing other than through reading Sue Monk Kidd’s “Dance of the Dissident Daughter” and Candace Pert’s “Molecules of Emotion,” is apparently ready and waiting for the book I am writing.

To read snippets of my memoir, “Sing from the Womb: Leaving Fundamentalism in Search of Voice,” click here.

The Path to Publication, part 4: Putting it out there

image(Number 1 of 3 posts in response to attending the Creative Nonfiction writing conference in Pittsburgh, PA, May 23-25, 2014)

Well, here I am in a hotel room in Pittsburgh trying to process all the information I received today at the Creative Nonfiction Conference. After a 9-hour drive yesterday and 5 hours of informational input today, my brain was ready for a nap!

Questions arose, but being the introvert I am, I needed time to think through it all. During a break two editors/presenters were standing right next to me and I couldn’t even think of what it was I needed to know. Duh.

But, after some processing time (and some scrummy Indian curry), I can share my main take-aways from today (some of which is surmised and not necessarily exactly what was said), and again, I will only discuss traditional publishing (but I will say that the info I heard today has confirmed my intuition that I should go the traditional route):

1. Submit to literary journals and magazines (print and online) to:
a) practice your craft
b) gain readership and develop a writing resume
c) develop relationships with editors (especially those of small presses who will, in general, work closely with you and offer encouragement, guidance, and “membership” in a community of writers.

Note: Essays/short stories can be published first and still possibly be included in a full-length work at a later date. Inclusion in an anthology is also an option.

2. “Creative Nonfiction is where it’s at!” — Lee Gutkind. BUT the subject of the nonfiction is most important.
What is it ABOUT? It can’t be just about you. No matter the brilliance of the writing, if the subject isn’t going to appeal/resonate with an audience (or editor/agent first), it will not get published.

3. Having an agent or not depends on your goals
It is imperative to have an agent if trying for a big press (and always have them negotiate the finances), not necessary if choosing a small/independent press. (But maoke sure you interview the editor to determine that the relationship and amount of promotion they will do will work for you.)

5. Develop your platform and brand through:
a) your own blog or submitting to other blogging sites (Huffpost, etc.)
b) Twitter — tweet other (good) writers’ work, there is a reciprocity that occurs online
c) online writing communities, and other outlets such as Goodreads, Buzzfeed, Medium, etc.
Editors notice this visibility.

But — and I’m pretty sure I mentioned this before — above all: YOUR PASSION IS YOUR BRAND AND PLATFORM!

The Path to Publication, part 3: Pitching for a date

As I mentioned in the first installment of this series, the whole pitch-query-agent-proposal-publisher thing has filled me with fear and dread for a long time. It took finally reaching out to some friends and acquaintances in the know and attending a very helpful (and focused) workshop to make it feel almost do-able.

And as promised, I am sharing here some of the advice I received (some of which will conflict). Please note, that this information is a summary and cannot reflect every helpful tidbit. In other words, get thee to a workshop for the most thorough insight on how to start the publication process. (As an aside, one author highly recommended going the self-publication route. At this point, I do not feel this is the right way for me, so I will focus here only on traditional publication.)

On agents and publishers, the first step:

    1. Don’t contact publishers directly.
    2. If you are close to finishing the book, do that.  Then start looking for an agent.
    3. If you want to sell on proposal, put together a brief proposal (think movie trailer) for an agent.
    4. Contacting a few publishers while researching agents is an option.
    5. Possibly request a casual conversation — no query yet since the books aren’t done — with a local publisher for insight on “final” draft.
    6. You do not need to have the book finished to begin the process. But prepare two “perfect” (your strongest) chapters ready to use as sample material.

On Pitches (a summary of information shared by David Corey at the League of Vermont Writers conference, April 26, 2014):

  1. Pitch is like the pick-up line to get you the date (the query letter is the first date)
  2. Pitch is a very short story (100-150 words)
  3. Use 3rd person, present tense
  4. Specific and concrete: talk action and character, not theme or intangibles (i.e. “the meaning of life”)
  5. Use nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs
  6. Use your own voice and make sure it reflects the tone of the book
  7. Paint a picture: show, don’t tell
  8. Make the reader care… in ONE SENTENCE!

On Query Letters (a summary of information shared by Joni Cole at the League of Vermont Writers conference, April 26, 2014):

  1. Use your own voice (don’t be all formal and “professional”)
  2. Make it memorable (“give it a heartbeat.”)
  3. Be specific: give “nugget” of the story without going into plot: a) The “grounding spot”: what started the story, why is there a story? b) What does character want to do? c) What’s in the way?
  4. Include genre and word count
  5. Personalized opening to agent (make you sure this is not a complete “cold call” so you have something to reference to make it personal)
  6. Show you did your homework (know the market: help them sell the book): a) who’s your competition? b) why is your book different? c) what’s your niche market?
  7. Platform: Who are you? a) credentials b) networks and mailing lists c) blogs, followers, etc.
  8. But above all: “YOUR PASSION IS YOUR PLATFORM!”

To read snippets of my memoir, click here. I will be adding more as this journey progresses.

 

 

A Path to Publication, part 2: When the time is right

“What do I really want to do?” I asked my journal.

“Finish your book!” it replied.

“Yes,” I exhaled in recognition of Truth. “I do want to do that.”

The Universe said, “OK, then!” And the Serendipities and Synchronicities began.

Within hours, two conferences popped up in my Facebook feed, one weekend-long one dedicated specifically to my genre, and another on writing pitches, queries, and book proposals — all those things that scared the bejeezus outta me — scheduled in my hometown. I sign up for both, thanks to the bigger-than-expected tax refund that came shortly thereafter.

I email some author and editor acquaintances of mine, asking for their advice. The responses are incredibly helpful.*

Then an opportunity for the summer suddenly presents itself which means I will only have myself to look after… no meals to prepare or piles of laundry to wade through. My editor OKs a sub for my columns for a few weeks. I have been given the precious gift of TIME.

At the first of the writing conferences I learn wonderful things* that give me new confidence in my ability to pursue publication. AND I learn there is a “Meet the Agents” event scheduled 90 minutes drive from me exactly at the end of the time-period I have scheduled to take off to work on the book.

One of my workshop participants said this yesterday:

Sometimes I feel like I’m just driving down a highway and I have no idea where I am or where I’m going. But then, suddenly, boom! there’s an exit and where I want to be is right there!

Well, I feel like I just found my exit. My journey is just started though but at least I know which way I’m going now. For that I am most grateful.

* In my next post I will share some of the gems I learned from authors and editors.

To read snippets of my memoir, click hereI will be adding more as this journey progresses.

A Path to Publication, part 1: It isn’t about publication

everestYou know what scares me?

Publishing my book.

No, let me rephrase that. You know what DID scare me?

Yup, until a week ago, the idea of going through the process of getting my book published gave me chills. It seemed a Mount Everest of Unknowns, with only the guarantee of the frost-bite of Rejection Letters.

But, I now know the fear was because I wasn’t ready. I am now.

I am ready to take this journey that I know will challenge my stamina and self-confidence. I don’t know what lies ahead, what crevices, cliffs, and peaks I will face, or even how long it will take. This is probably going to be a loooong, slooooow hike.

And I invite you to come along with me. It is my hope that by sharing the journey, it won’t seem so lonely or so cold. And for those who are also wishing to publish, I hope it might serve as a Sherpa, a guide: learn from my mistakes and find encouragement in my successes.

So, here’s where The Story of My Story is now. I won’t start at the very beginning, that was the day I was born, and who’s got time for all that? I won’t even tell you how I became a writer or how I came to write the particular book I wrote (although finishing it will become the part of this story which I am very much looking forward to reading myself…).

OK, let’s start here:

Once upon a time — oh, about eight, 15, 22 years ago — I thought the apex of my life would be to get published. I thought it would be as a novelist, but then I realized I like writing about my own problems too much to make up problems for non-existent people.

Fast forward a few years. I started blogging and then I got my first by-line in a tiny magazine. Fast forward again to now. I have two weekly columns in my local paper and I see my name on the cover at least once a month. Publication is no longer a big deal.

Now, wait a minute, you say. Having a by-line in a small town’s paper isn’t exactly The Big Time. No, I know. But what it has done is taken the OMG!-ness out of it. I’ve gotten used to knowing my words are being read over coffee and commented on in cyberspace.

What I’m trying to say is, I’m no longer wanting to be published for the sake of being published (I just yesterday heard about someone who is writing soft porn, not because they are called to write it, but because, as they said, “I just want to be published.”).

Oh, don’t get me wrong, when (I believe in positive thinking) I first see my book in a bookstore window I will be doing Pharrell’s “Happy” dance on the inside (or maybe just for fun, I’ll do it for real while telling all the staring passers-by, “That’s my book. See that? I wrote that. That’s me. See?”).

No, I now want to be published because I believe that what I have to say, what I have learned – My Story – is important and can be of help to others. I know — because it already has with some with whom I have shared it — that my story resonates. Therefore, I believe I have an obligation to share it with the world.

But wait, I still haven’t said where I am right now along this path to publication. Well, I’ve babbled enough for now. I will start with my latest story of Serendipity in the next post.

To read snippets of my memoir, click hereI will be adding more as this journey progresses.