Heather L. Seggel

Telling Your Story: More on Self-Publishing

In Uncategorized on 14 November 2014 at 6:34 pm

I recently shared an essay that discusses some of the pitfalls of self-publishing. It’s a topic I return to with some frequency, as I review a lot of books that aren’t quite ready for an audience yet, and find the same mistakes being made over and over. However, something happened recently with a book I cited in that piece that helped me better understand where some of those problems might be taking root.

 

The issues I cited in my essay were broadly categorized: One author needs the world to know how awful her family was, to the exclusion of any narrative structure or storytelling; another can’t leave out a single word, larding his work with excessive description and shredded newspaper; and one has a story too spare to stand on its own, a problem solved by reprinting slogans, jokes, anecdotes and other flotsam to fill the spaces in between. I theorized that these all can be traced back to a lack of curiosity about the world, a desire to write without questioning the “why” of things, and that’s definitely true up to a point. The desire to make a quick buck or get lots of eyes on your words makes stopping to edit seem like so much busy-work, though failing to put in the effort inevitably sinks the book. But there’s more going on here than I originally thought.

 

In that essay I cited one book as a good example of a self-published memoir–the author described a long family history of mental illness, and wrote at length and repeatedly about her mother’s hateful, abusive behavior. These things left untempered would make for pretty rough going, but she also told a larger story about the family and their place and time in history which was educational and entertaining, and she occasionally stepped back from the harder stories and speculated about why her mother turned against her when she was far too young to have done anything wrong. It made for a moving story, and I gave the book a very favorable review, adding in a note to my editor to say that if my enthusiasm wasn’t apparent to send it back to me for revisions. I really liked this book and felt it deserved high praise and a receptive audience.

 

Last week I heard from my editor that the author wrote with several complaints about the review; she suddenly made the case that her mother wasn’t nearly as mean as I made out, that she was kind much of the time, and engaged in some hair-splitting about their family history of mental illness (a theme she discussed with dramatic flair in two introductory passages, making it central to the book as a whole). My editor made it clear that this was nothing to worry about or take personally, and I didn’t. It took me less than ten minutes to find citations to counter each assertion the author made, but I added that while I’m sure it was true that her mother was kind some of the time, those instances simply were not part of the book she wrote. I was reviewing a manuscript, not a life, and could only base my response on the words it contained.

 

If you’ve ever had the jarring experience of sharing something online, then having people respond with authority despite no evidence that they read or thought about your words at all, you know how high the stakes are for someone who has tried to represent their life story for public consumption. The authors who write, rewrite, edit, take feedback and incorporate it–the ones who put the time in and treat the work as art–eventually realize there is never going to be a point when a manuscript is perfect in every way. Not precisely true, not poetically immaculate. You will open it and read and immediately want to make changes. Some will be beneficial, and some you’ll reverse the next time you look at it. And eventually you’ll reach a point of okay-ness, maybe even pretty good-ness, beyond which only tiny alterations happen. But by then the story has assumed a life of its own, and you can view it with a tiny wedge of detachment. When a critic who never met you or your mother reviews your book, it will not feel like an indictment of her parenting skills, but an evaluation of your story. You’ll be able to see what you accomplished for what it is.

 

The book in question had a few typos and minor flubs, as are becoming common even in conventional publishing these days, but nothing egregious. The story was well-structured; the chronology made sense and didn’t violate the space-time continuum more than was absolutely necessary. To read it as a critic of self-published work, it came off as a very good effort, falling just short of the standards a conventional book would be held to (cover design was amateurish, the cover copy was a bit clunky, etc). After hearing the author’s response to such a favorable review, the problem is revealed to be one of patience. She should not have published a book she did not know well.

 

It’s surprising to see the ways people misread our intentions, as well as our literal words, but there are some things you must build into your work and be prepared to stand behind. Spending the time, not rushing to publish, is the critical difference. Know what you’re sending out into the world, and you’ll be best equipped to find a home for it.

Curiosity and Storytelling

In Uncategorized on 2 November 2014 at 6:30 pm

See, everything I know I learned from my dad,
He learned it all from his/
And his dad just happened to be
Wrong about everything!
–Dan Bern, “Hannibal”

Not long ago I finished reading a memoir and had to restrain myself from throwing it across the room. Fortunately I was being paid to read it; part of my living comes from reviewing books, and a part of that part is dedicated to self-published work. This memoir was drawn from that pile, and had many strikes against it—an intolerably snotty narrator, numerous typos that made simply getting through it a slog, and an obscenely high page count. If I was going to complain about the quality, at least it wouldn’t be followed with, “And the portions were so small!” This was a doorstop.

The central problem with this book was a trait that’s sadly common to many self-published books: A simple lack of curiosity on the part of the author about her own life. Telling your own story isn’t best achieved by knowing all the answers when you sit down to write; the most engaging work comes from authors who aren’t afraid to wonder, even if the answers that come don’t flatter them.

The open floodgates in the world of self-published books mean a lot of people show up with manuscripts that aren’t ready for prime time. It’s a delightfully global village, but authors who write in English without basic fluency or a willingness to pay for translation and editing hurt their cause by publishing work that’s simply impossible to understand, much less rank for consumers. This is slowly improving as authors who sell no copies begin the hard task of asking why and making the necessary adjustments. Many have good stories to tell and merely need technical assistance to ensure the reader can pick up what they’re laying down, but the movement as a whole is still undermined by those who equate typing with authorship.

Rather than unfairly piling on any one author, here are a few broad examples drawn from recent reviews. Consider it a field guide to avoidable catastrophe.

We begin with The Axe-Grinder. Lots of people grow up hating their mothers. It’s a very sad thing, and you’re surely entitled to vent your spleen about it as an adult with a laptop. But! In self-published memoirs, the accusatory finger is often wielded with such overpowering force it sinks the story around it. A woman furious at her family claims (repeatedly, and in the middle of stories about other things) that her sister exacerbated their mother’s dementia by cooking for her, since measuring and preparing food would have engaged the woman’s mind. A man who wrote about the many cats he’d cared for takes time out to gripe about his mother for not giving him money for a vacation, when the comfortable living he brags about is spent on…well, not spaying and neutering, that’s for sure (he had roughly a jillion cats). The biological daughter of parents who fostered several children was entirely right to call out both the parents and foster siblings for instances of abuse and neglect, but fails to notice that merely listing these sad occurrences does not offer the reader a story to engage with.

While it may seem impossible in the heat of a first draft to take time out and put yourself in your tyrannical mother’s shoes, take heart! You’re not supposed to! However, you are also not supposed to publish your first draft. And when it comes to going deeper, many authors succeed and still get their anger out. A recent self-pub memoir that crossed my desk focused on an abusive mother who, once her daughter had reached puberty, down-shifted from physical beatings to emotional torment so severe the girl wet the bed into adulthood. No doubt about it, she had a legitimate score to settle. But in so doing, she continued to speculate about why her mother turned out this way, and noted the close relationship she was able to maintain with her father and grandparents. The mere willingness to allow that her monstrous mother might be a human being shows a depth of consideration on the author’s part that makes her easy to sympathize with, and the book was gripping as a result.

Setting down a weapon is never easy, especially when that weapon is a pen. It feels so powerful to be the one telling the story your way, without interruption from your stupid family who never thought you had it in you. I’d encourage anyone with that much energy to write their heart out as freely and often as possible; the catharsis can be therapeutic, and telling your truth is always, always a valid pursuit. It’s just that this is the stuff of journals, not literature. If you want to publish your story, take all your notebooks and stash them in a drawer for five years, then come back to it. Still want to publish? OK, you are ready to begin what will probably be the most grueling series of revisions you ever undertake. And you owe it to the people you write about to talk to them and consider their perspective, too, even if you disagree with it. Your story is not your own at the end of the day. It happened in a world with the rest of us in it.

This is a rambling route to a point many would-be authors lose sight of, given the ease with which books can be published: Good writing takes time. It’s not at all uncommon to find a first-person comment in a self-published memoir like, “Wow, I didn’t know it would be so hard to write a book! I started on Monday and it’s already Thursday!” Don’t be one of these people. Care enough to put the time in, and you will naturally begin to incorporate the perspective of others while still having your say. It’s just that now it will more likely be something we want to read.

Moving on, we find the Kitchen Sink-ers. It may not seem to reflect a lack of curiosity, but many self-publishers, both memoir and fiction writers, suffer a defect of perception that I occasionally fall victim to myself. It may be driven by a desire to maintain word count, or a simple unwillingness to take up the scalpel, but these scribes put every thought in their heads on the page and refuse to cut so much as a comma. The resulting prose is, at best, a slurry of verbal diarrhea that leads to mental constipation, an IBS of the mind.

These are stories where a protagonist wakes up, turns over, rolls to an upright position at the edge of the bed, leans forward, stands, then—lifting first his left foot and then his right—walks to the bathroom (in the LL Bean slippers with the blackwatch plaid lining he got on his fifth wedding anniversary) to pee. You can imagine how long it takes to get breakfast into a person so utterly fascinating, what with waiting for each egg to be laid and the wheat to grow into eventual toast. In fiction this is often comical in its sheer badness, but in nonfiction it becomes problematic in the extreme.

Think about a popular memoir you enjoyed. There’s usually a flow to the story that draws you in, and whether the author talks to the reader like a friend or simply presents their tale with little preamble, they offer the details crucial to the story without a lot of clutter or equivocation. During those in-between moments, they are silently gliding toward the next plot point on moving walkways, buying groceries, showering, maybe paying bills, none of which we need to read about. Self-pubs often feel the need to include everything they did as if drawing the details from a journal (which many of them are openly doing), and when memory fails making up something like, “We probably had hash browns and eggs for breakfast, then went to the mall for a while since it was the weekend.” This happens so often it has become a trope of the field. I’ve begun to worry that one more speculative memory of an incident that nobody cares about will push me over the edge. Is it possible to give out negative stars? Can I give a book a black hole?

Again, the fix is not that difficult. Fiction writers: First of all, read better fiction, even if it’s just for a little while, and read closely. Find a few passages where a character manages to move through her day organically without our having to count how many times she chews each bite of food. Copy those passages out. Literally copy them by hand. Now refer to them when you’ve got a character who’s stuck. Don’t steal, but pay attention to what we need to know and what we can live without, and err on the side of brevity. If you somehow use a Mrs. Field’s cookie to intercept a terrorist threat, this is relevant and worthy of inclusion. If you are at the mall on a less eventful day, don’t list all the stores you pass; the mere word “mall” is sufficient for us to visualize the scene. Take the escalator to the food court and order your hot dog on a stick, just before whatever is going to happen surprises us all. I’m rooting for you.

Nonfiction authors, you have it even easier. Here’s your metric: If you don’t remember what happened, it doesn’t matter. Don’t include it. I’m serious. “We probably had a roast chicken,” is not useful to a reader. It makes you sound like a ninny, as if you don’t remember your own life and, even worse, don’t seem to care about it. A memorable meal is worth recounting—the cut glass vase holding four peonies, votive candles in Mason jars on the sideboard casting a subtle glow, and you, across from the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with, tucking into a shared can of Heinz Vegetarian Beans on toast. The 29 other dinners that month can probably be left aside. This one has sufficient narrative power to carry the day.

This would not be a righteous roundup without including The Fridge Magneteers. Just as the Kitchen Sinkers bog down a story with a lot of pointless details, there are writers who junk up a book with a profusion of anecdotes, quotes, and other pithy irrelevancies. It’s a bit like opening Facebook and finding the same photo or meme several times in your news feed—what might be amusing at first quickly becomes annoying, just more lard clogging up your day.

Inspirational AA quotes. Life lessons from amazing nonagenarians. Mnemonic devices for dieters. The endless hilarity that is enjoying coffee or wine, or deriding those who enjoy them. All these things, and more Wikipedia entries than you’d believe, end up boosting the page count of the books I’m asked to read. At this point even a well-chosen epigraph is irritating (though I’ll always forgive those) because so many of these books reflect a lazy approach to language, story, and content. Books aren’t merely a page count; they should exist for a reason, and spackling a holey story together with serenity prayers and random thoughts pulled from the public domain shows a striking lack of originality or interest.

While the Axe-Grinders are the hardest books for me to read (I so often want to throw the victim under the bus, then feel guilty about it), the Fridge Magneteers are the biggest affront to reading and writing, since in most cases a book filled up with quotes from others is a book that can’t stand on its own. My advice to these folks is pick a lane: If you want to compile a gazetteer or miscellany, by all means proceed. Give it a theme, bring in a skilled designer so it’s pleasing to browse through, and chances are I’d buy it and love it. But if your reliance on the anecdotes of others in any way points to your own story being incomplete, don’t publish yet! Sit with your work and let it ferment a bit. Commit to revising and polishing, to the actual craft of writing, and trust your originality to come forth when called. We’ll be here for your wild truths and wilder imaginings, just maybe spare us from hanging out all day while you do laundry on the page.

It’s somewhere between funny and tragic that the writer’s guidelines from one of my review jobs contain the following passage: “I find it such a wonderful facet of human nature that reviewers so often try to shield authors from hurt by avoiding being direct about the problems in a book. It speaks to the good in all of us.” While I generally have the opposite problem, beginning with the premise, “This sucks,” and trying to rephrase it kindly, I did just ask an editor to double-check my work for snark about a (terrible) book I suspected was written by someone with a serious learning disability.
It’s a noteworthy accomplishment for anyone to set out to write a book and finish it, but if a review is supposed to advise both the general public and those in charge of library acquisitions, you still need to find a compassionate way to shut it down if the result is unreadable.

A side effect of reading so much genuinely undercooked writing is the gratitude I feel now for a well-told story. I’ve always loved reading, but good work makes me want to stand and cheer now that it’s unavoidably clear how much effort goes into it, and how many people are willing to try and pass off sawdust for soul food. I trip over my feet in the rush to credit a well-turned phrase anymore. They’re tiny miracles, shooting stars on the page.

Writing well is a little like the paradox of faith. To believe requires you to hold the thought that your belief might not be correct or reciprocated, but that’s still the star you steer by, even knowing it may lead you into rough seas. It’s unnerving and dynamic. Your life story is, and all your stories are, the same way. Knowing it all before you lift a pen effectively drains the life from your material. Let it roam a bit, maybe pull away from you, lead you somewhere unexpected.

If your dad was a rat bastard, show us a good day among the bad and the betrayal when he falls off the wagon again will be that much harder to take. You were a model student, a perfect child, employee of the month but nobody cared?, What lurked under all those perfectly smoothed surfaces? Give us a bad hair day, that one time you fought back, some contrast, some texture. You may think you have the full story, but you can never know how other people saw things; the confidence it takes to tell a story well is the same confidence that lets you face that doubt and continue writing.

All of these things boil down to remaining curious about your life and the ideas you have about it. Never underestimate the richness to be mined from the possibility that you might be wrong and simply following that discovery where it leads.

—Heather Seggel

Birthers, Truthers, Werthers, Grabthars

In Uncategorized on 1 October 2014 at 1:13 am

The comments on this recent piece I wrote (http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/09/30/im-a-college-graduate-and-a-business-owner-and-im-about-to-be-homeless/) raise some really good issues, and also include several assumptions not based in fact, which will happen when word count precludes a full chronology of events. It’s always gratifying when people respond to something you wrote (except when they threaten to kill you which, thankfully, has not been the case thus far for me), though how much in the way of further response is required can be a bit murky. I thought I’d offer this post as both a ‘thank you’ to everyone who weighed in (even you, guy who thought a copywriter just copied other people’s writing and got paid for it, as you gave me a hearty chuckle) and to explain a few of the things left unsaid in the piece. OK, these ancient scrolls aren’t going to reproduce themselves—to the Scriptorium!

I’ve never owned a car or had a driver’s license. You can read more about that here (http://the-toast.net/2014/05/05/memoir-mirrored/) if you are so inclined. At the time my job was imperiled by my ride falling through I lived ten miles from a bus stop in unincorporated Sonoma County, and I ended up making more doing PR for the same business I’d been a cashier at, which enabled me to come in when I could find a ride and work largely from home. But my friendships faltered because I wasn’t there regularly for in-jokes and rounds of, “Good Lord, our bosses are insane!” I still miss that, but please note the ca-ching!-y way I turned a bad situation in my favor.

2013 was the first year I freelanced full time. I’ve written and had work published for more than half my life, but as people recommended, I treated it as a sideline, working as many as three minimum-wage retail jobs to keep afloat. In 2009 I was working in a shoe store and at the public library, but I qualified for public assistance because both jobs kept me stretched so thin in terms of hours (and offered zero benefits of their own). I didn’t apply for or accept any governmental mother’s milk then, instead choosing to bootstrap it by freelancing in the odd hours remaining to me when I could sit up and not fall asleep mid-conversation. Both of those jobs laid me off within a matter of two months, and unemployment was beyond useless at helping me get back to work (actual quote: “Just think of this as a vacation and enjoy it.”). Then my dad got sick and needed a lot of assistance, which I balanced with job hunting, and freelancing, and getting kicked off of unemployment because they insist you only search for a full time job even though I never had one to begin with. Fun all around.

Then my dad inconveniently died. You can read about some of that here if you like (http://the-toast.net/2013/12/18/christmas-story/). And I moved into a place that was beyond skeevy. Unemployment from assisting with my father’s care came to a princely $63 a week, but they would cut me off when I reported $40 income for a book review, and I’d have to undergo a phone hearing and prove that I was seeking full-time work (I was), then wait for them to reinstate my benefits. My local one-stop employment office was again full of contradictory advice designed to get me dumped from the rolls (there are people at the EDD whose job it is to cull recipients), with very little in the way of job leads—when they suggested them I always followed up and certainly busted my tail independent of their flakery, but never got so much as an interview.

By the end of 2012 I was opening new doors with my writing, but being sidelined by all this make-work from unemployment added a layer of distraction and stress to my life that I decided would be better spent building up my contacts and relationships to try and find more lucrative work. So on January 1, 2013, I informed the Employment Development Department that they could keep the $1500 in insurance benefits that remained to me (and also choke on a bag of…well, I’ll leave it to your imagination). I was going to formally strike out on my own as a freelancer.

And I made a great go of it! Found some new work, learned a ton, and while I wasn’t rich my earnings were heading in the right direction. However. The place I lived had a few problems. (Want to read about them? I thought you might: http://the-toast.net/2014/09/04/handy-men-misandry-home-repair/ ) In addition to my landlord being a lecherous Gropey McFeelerson scumbag, there were his handy henchmen, who couldn’t grasp the concept of a home office. Or why I was upset that mine was now flooded. And why, later, I was upset that the kitchen area I’d relocated it to was ALSO flooded. Or why having them come by at 7 am, 8 pm, weekends, or whenever the spirit moved them, might be hard on a person working with deadlines, interviews, you know, the work of being a writer. Have you ever tried to have a business conversation while someone, who sees you are on the phone as it’s a trailer and you’re ten feet apart, runs a Sawzall? Let me tell you: Your professionalism suffers.

One thing worth noting that was cut from the WaPo piece is that during this time I volunteered as much as my time would allow, but more than once went through rather involved vetting and training only to be shunted off to a task with no social contact whatsoever. And I went to regular “socials” with a group I met through the community radio station, but only when I could afford $8 for a glass of grape juice with seltzer in it, so, not often. I put myself out there and kept at it, and was continually building contacts while in Ukiah.

The final straw for that location was my landlord and two of his buddies who were also handymen trumping up a story about how one of them found evidence of an attempted arson on the roof of my trailer. Nobody in the park would advocate for me with the manager or law enforcement, and the stress was eating my stomach lining. So I moved in with my aunt (and the handyman who “found” the melted pool of wax on my roof moved into what was once my trailer). I grew up in Sonoma County and this is where my father and I lost our place and couldn’t find a way back indoors for over a year. As a result I was only coming to stay for the summer and look for a permanent home with a very clear understanding that it would not be here. This was never anything but a temporary stay, and it has already gone on longer than my aunt or I had planned because I simply haven’t found anything, and I’m searching from Southern Cal up to Washington State.

I have been looking for work consistently during my time here as well, but continue to not hear back when I apply. In the past few weeks, as my aunt’s move date grows nearer, it has made more sense to me to prioritize finding a secure place to live, after which I will do three things: 1. Sleep for a week and eat ice cream and watch all the 30 Rock seasons I can lay my hands on on my laptop (this counts as one thing because as a freelancer I am all about the multitasking). 2. Make a brutally honest assessment as to whether it’s worth it for me to continue writing and try again to make it a stable source of income. 3. Regardless of the answer to #2, I will bust ass harder than I’ve ever busted ass before to find a subsistence job, though the reality right now is that it takes two and a half subsistence incomes to pay for one apartment (http://www.populist.com/20.18.seggel.html).

The title given to this piece was melodramatic, and I think it misdirected readers somewhat; yeah, I wrote it about my own experience, but it’s about a situation many people are facing. It took my aunt three years to get near the top of a waiting list for affordable housing—in the meantime she’s odd-jobbing and gutting her savings to rent a house she can’t afford because it was the only thing she could find. I also have absolute faith that I’ll find a place; it’s just stressful to send out so many inquiries, call and post fliers and basically beg and hear nothing in return. I agree with comments that suggest I’ve made one disastrous decision after another. Often when you’re faced with systemic poverty you reach for the only branch that’s offered or, as I once did, chase a dollar bill being pulled on a string by two teenage boys(http://the-toast.net/2013/12/03/class-navigation-on-being-poor/). But they have each been mistakes I’ve learned from (including coming to stay here at all, though I couldn’t find anywhere else to go and really didn’t want to be burned to death in my sleep). So maybe the melodrama was warranted after all. It was pretty dramatic living through it.

I am not out of touch, or a prima donna, and I’m more than willing to get my hands dirty. But I do have a sense of entitlement: If I work full time (which means three jobs when one won’t give you the hours) I want a dry bed to sleep in at the end of the day. And I feel comfortable in the belief that this is not too much to ask.

One more link, because why the hell not? Material here overlaps with the Progressive Populist piece, just so you know. (http://www.bohemian.com/northbay/through-the-cracks/Content?oid=2609599)

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