Getting your first book published is such a huge adventure, and every writer’s story is different.
Today’s post is all about how my first memoir started with an idea and ended up as a physical, traditionally-published book.
Although the publishing world has changed a lot since 2006, I truly believe that with the power of social media and the online world, there are more opportunities than ever if you’d like to have your book snapped up by a publisher or agent.
Here’s where my first book deal began…
Way back in a time before Facebook
Twelve years ago, I had no idea how to write a book, just a gnawing ache that it was something I really wanted to do.
I never set out to write a travel memoir, or a literary memoir (even though both were genres I absolutely loved to read), I just wanted to write a book. I tinkered with a few ideas (and even a couple of novels, while I was at University), but for a long time, I doubted I could ever finish an 80 – 120 000 word manuscript.
- Start with a few thousand words. Build up to ten. Then fifty. Keep stretching yourself. You learn more about storytelling, the more you write.
Freelance writing and ‘platform’
Im 2007, I’d been making my living as a freelance writer, writing articles, columns, feature stories and interviews for newspapers and magazines for almost two years. I always knew that a book deal rested on some sort of ‘platform’ – or at the very least, some way ‘in’ to the industry. Freelance journalism was, just such an ‘in’ – publishers who read the Sunday magazines would have seen my by-line, and of course, the contacts I had in magazines and newspapers would have led to reviews or media coverage of a book, if i published one. Lots of writers I knew had developed a feature story into a book idea. I started to feel more urgent about making the most of this ‘platform’ – I had no idea how long the weekly newspaper columns would last.
- The great thing is, to secure a book deal now, you no longer need to rely on traditional media – you could even have a huge facebook following of your quirky thermomix recipes or you’ve written a thesis on your topic. All potential publishers want to know is if you’re known or have any expertise or niche in your topic.
- In 2005 and around when I was starting to think of writing a book, Julie and Julia, and Save Karyn, come out – both started as blogs and were optioned for film rights as soon as the memoir was published.
- The online world has opened up the possibilities for a ‘platform’ more than ever. Platform can include: a great blog/you-tube/instagram following, expertise in your industry, feature articles for magazines being written about you, a story on a TV or Radio station about you (perhaps you’ve accomplished something magnificent or unusual?). These can all be leveraged to secure a book deal. You don’t necessarily have to have a background as a freelance writer or have extensive connections in the publishing industry.
Expand your word count
After writing stories of up to 2000 and 3000 words, I knew I wanted to attack a larger piece. But what was I going to write about? Randomly, I flew to New York, after a large copywriting project saw me writing about 5000 words in one week for a really popular TV website.
A year earlier, I’d travelled Australia with nothing more than a laptop and a suitcase with a few changes of clothes, making my living as a writer while my boyfriend at the time performed in outback pubs and bars.
So, in New York, I started sending group emails to my friends (including my growing list of fellow-freelancers, as Facebook started to take off and it became easier to connect with relative strangers who did what I did). In these emails I’d recount the large rats eating pizza on the street, the delight of ice skating in the snow, the party I was invited to on a street corner with Cindy Lauper, my crazy date with a Brooklyn cop who didn’t understand me when I asked for ‘cutlery’… Just light and funny stuff, really. I loved the randomness of New York.
- Write about what you like to write about. Expand your word count. Find people who love to read your writing, and foster good writing networks.
Writing community and motivation
One of my freelance writer friends generously forwarded one of my emails to someone she knew in publishing, and a day or two later, they emailed me asking if I had anything to send her that could be a book.
This was just the impetus I needed. I’d ALWAYS wanted to be a published author. Here was an actual publisher at a big-name publishing house, asking me if I could send her ‘what I was working on’. I hadn’t actually been working on anything at the time except my freelance columns and features, so I looked at the emails I’d written which had been forwarded on as a potential book, and used that to fuel an all-weekend writing binge. I knew I had to get three sample chapters ready.
The only thing was, I had no idea what I was doing. My sample chapters were really just a series of anecdotes and there was no real challenge or narrative thread to hold anything together.
- Foster great writing networks and make the most of EVERY opportunity. If someone asks you if you’re working on a book, even if you’re not, say you are! And do it – write something, the best you can, and follow up!
The book proposal
By then, it was December 2007. New York was snowing, and i was housesitting for a friend in Brooklyn. I sent the publisher three sample chapters and a semi-synopsis (I think it was only 200 words, because again, I had no idea what I was doing and rather than jump into researching how to pitch a book, I just hurried along to get her something!)
After a weekend of writing like a madwoman, I submitted what i’d crafted into a pitch, and didn’t hear anything for over a month. I returned to Australia, and in early February, I finally heard back from the publisher. She said my work didn’t feel ‘sustainable’ as a book and that I hadn’t spent long enough in NYC to write a travel memoir about the experience.
I licked my wounds and went back to freelancing. I thought about what she’d written, a lot. For months, in fact. (Hey, an email from a big-name publisher goes STRAIGHT to the pool room and I think I even printed it out!).
- Even though it was a rejection, it was incredibly helpful. It was advice from a publisher! I focused on what she said was missing from the New York story – meat, length, depth, challenge.
I thought about my journey around Australia, the previous year – which had plenty to sustain a whole book. Also (and even more importantly), it was something I really wanted to write about. It had something in common with the travel memoirs I loved to read.
It was challenging. There was depth to the story (fears I had to overcome, relationship difficulties, a challenge I needed to surmount – managing to make a living from writing while also living out of a car, etc). Emails and anecdotes are all well and good (and I did use a lot of my emails and diary entries for what ended up being that first published memoir) but almost like a song needs a certain number of lines to build to a crescendo or the chorus to be anything interesting, you need to flesh things out. There needs to be some ‘meat’ to your story. I knew that my journey around Australia had been difficult enough to sustain a memoir.
- Before you go hurly burly into pitching a book, have a think about the kinds of memoirs you actually like to read. You’re going to spend a lot of time in the ‘world’ of your book, so make sure it’s a story you can swim around in happily for months to years. Make sure it’s challenging enough to sustain your interest.
Go quiet and write
After that email, I quietly began chipping away at what became Love & Other U-Turns. About six months later, I’d written about 70 000 words when the same publisher contacted me again (out of the blue!) to see if I was working on anything new. Another huge opportunity! Again, I was so keen to make the most of her contact that I (stupidly) sent her the 70 000 word mess I’d written. It was less than a first draft – it was like a stream-of-consciousness mess. It had no structure, no through-line, and I didn’t even know about the structure of a memoir, or how to write a synopsis.
- Write your synopsis, check the three-act structure when you’re planning your memoir, get your focus sentence and do some planning before launching into your first draft (or second, or third.) And DO NOT send a half-written first draft to a publisher!
Eventually, I did actually hear back from the publisher (I’m still horrified that I sent her that completely unstructured 70 000 word first draft!). It was a brief email but there was one line which was encouraging.
She ultimately said what I’ve said above: the writing was good, but she needed a finished ‘story’. A complete manuscript. Not just 70 000 words loosely written about a topic, she needed a cohesive narrative that followed the conventions of story.
What and how I could get to that point, I still didn’t know.
After about five more intensive redrafts (including extensive edits after giving it to two beta-readers to give me detailed feedback), I had the manuscript ready for submission. That publisher had gone, my weekly columns were about to dry up, but because I’d done so much work on the manuscript, I had a book offer after cold pitching it to Allen and Unwin within a week.
This was roughly TWO YEARS after that initial email introduction when I’d been living in New York. I have no doubt that I could have shortened that time, and written a much better first draft – or at least, something much closer to the final draft – if I’d have known a little more about story structure and planning before I started to pitch and write my first memoir.
Here are three ways you can learn from my mistakes and move quicker from concept to a book deal:
- Write the story that has the most ‘juice’ for you – the most conflict, challenge, drama. That intensity will also keep you interested, as you work on the book.
- Begin your book with a catalyst or a problem – look at who you were at the beginning of your ‘adventure’ and compare it to who you are now. There must be a change in the character (you) for there to be a story. That’s where the real story lies!
- Map out your book and plan it before you start to write it. At a very basic level, every memoir plan needs a good synopsis, clear chapter summaries, focus sentence, articulated driving desire, author bio and gripping first chapter which plunges you headlong into the story. There’s a few more things, but this will get you started.
Don’t make the same mistakes as me. Outline your book before you write it. Write on a topic that makes your heart sing. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you need to be ‘connected’ to get a book deal. I pitched Love + Other U-Turns without an agent to a publisher who’d never known me before. Use whatever platform you have to ‘sell’ yourself as an author to your dream publisher.
And persevere. These things can take time! Save yourself some heartache by planning your memoir, first. Already written it? It’s never too late. Go back and edit the synopsis, make the chapters sing, check it’s in line with the three-act structure. And ALWAYS get someone to give you feedback before you submit it to a publisher!