Monday, October 24, 2016

The Siren Song of Traditional Publishing

At a women's fiction writing conference this past weekend I sat on a panel of authors and agents talking about self-publishing versus traditional publishing. As an “indie” author (self-published is passé) I had over these last six years mostly given up trying to convince people that not all of us fail to hire editors or have a slew of bad reviews on Amazon. And that, yes, we can and do sell books and spin off satisfying side endeavors, including teaching and editing.

That said, traditional publishing is the siren song luring many with its enchanting call.

The women I spoke to at the conference wanted a publisher, although few seemed to know (or care) what that means in terms of marketing and bookstores or whether a small or large press mattered. Self-publishing was considered the final option. They just didn't want to deal with the work.

But it isn't just about the time and energy. It's about the validation that they're worthy which they believe traditional publishing bestows. For someone who spent over two decades in journalism where validation was often based on factors other than great writing, I encourage new writers to try the traditionally published route. If it doesn't happen, however, it's not a testament to their talents or their work. It's about the market. But at least they can say they tried.

The two agents on the panel stated that when it comes to shopping manuscripts around to publishing houses, at least for women’s fiction, the protagonist can’t be older than in her late 20s or mid-30s. One author in the audience piped up that she had made her protagonist younger (changed her from being in her 40s to her mid-30s) at her agent's direction.

For me, it was a reminder that agents and traditional publishers are interested in everyone except maybe older people and their stories; unless, of course, you’re an established literary icon like Francine Prose who got this glowing review in the New York Times for her latest novel, Mister Monkey, which is about people of all ages.

Agents, after all, are just trying to make a living and hope to discover the next The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl. As the oldest person sitting on the panel I realized how vulnerable we all are to what “sells” – and what supposedly doesn’t. There seemed little emphasis on the literary, although a nod was given to making sure you write “a good story” with “universal themes.”

(In A Portrait of Love and Honor, Ava is in her mid-40s. In a short story I wrote due out in November, the protagonist is nearing her 60th birthday.)

The conversation about publishing continued later in a workshop at this conference. The view among the writers was that hybrid or partnership publishing was, as one woman put it, “vanity publishing.” Paying to have your manuscript vetted and accepted by hybrid publishers didn’t appear to entice, although, the consolation, if any, is earning higher royalties, the woman said.

Interestingly, of all the published authors present at least half were self-published. As one woman about my age told me, “I’m at the age where I can’t wait years to see my book published.” But even she had come to pitch her new novel to an agent; maybe because it felt like the reason most people paid for the day-long writing conference was to pitch to agents and hold out the hope that they might find a traditional publisher. 

After one would-be author returned from her pitch session, her deflation was obvious. We had spoken about her novel before she went in to pitch it and her enthusiasm was evident. She had spent years lovingly crafting a story about a mentally ill mother and her four daughters. By the end of her 15-minute pitch she came out of the room with shoulders slumped. The agent had deemed her novel “too emotional” without the necessary “hook” to “grab the reader right away.” (Plot-driven stories in women’s fiction are also what agents want.)

At the conclusion of a workshop I taught at the conference, the subject of publishing again came up. “I feel so overwhelmed,” a writer, who was probably in her early 40s, told me. “I have a friend who is self-publishing and when I hear her talk about all the work involved . . . " she sighed. "Yet when I walk into a library and see all these books and the people who have actually gotten their work published, I think . . . and then there’s me.”

I invited her to consider that writing is one of the hardest things in the world. Writing a bestselling novel is about as likely – or less – than being struck by lightning. What's important is getting the story out there for readers.

She nodded. “I have this story I need to write. It keeps me awake at night. If you’re writing to become rich and famous, that’s not a good reason.”

How about you? What experiences can you share on the path to publishing?

Monday, October 17, 2016

Writing My Difficult Past: By Joan Z. Rough

It is my pleasure to introduce memoir author Joan Z. Rough to the Women's Writing Circle. In this thoughtful essay, Joan writes of the healing journey that is memoir. Please welcome Joan. ~ Susan

When I began thinking about writing a memoir, I was just coming out of a long and arduous journey during which I cared for my mother during her last seven years of life. I knew writing about those years would be difficult. Yet I felt that the writing could be healing for me. At the same time I was also scared to death of reliving what had been one of the most grueling periods in my life. I was in deep emotional pain and was desperate to leave it all behind. Despite that, I decided to begin the writing and hope for the best.

Though I had been abused by both of my parents as a child, I was grateful for the moments when we connected as a family with love and compassion for one another. I began writing the happy stories. But when I started rehashing my life with the help of a therapist, the traumatic stories began pouring out. There were the beatings by my father, his PTSD from his experiences in WWII, my mother’s own childhood abuse, and her self-medication with alcohol.

Until then, I never realized that I was an abused child. Since many of the kids in my neighborhood were also thrashed by their parents when they “misbehaved,” I thought being whipped with a belt or a horse crop was normal. I didn’t know that the ceaseless moving from house to house that we did when I was a kid, was causing difficulties for me as an adult. Unlike other people I knew, I had no friends from way back when, and no one place that stood out for me as a childhood home. I felt unworthy of anyone’s attention and completely broken. I discovered my own PTSD and the reasons for the intense anxiety I lived with.

Finding the writing cathartic, I hired a writing coach who told me to simply write. We met every other week and talked about what I had written. As the stories poured out on paper and I continued talking with my therapist, there were moments of extraordinary clarity during which
I made startling discoveries. I realized that though my mother never laid a hand on me, I felt betrayed by her because whenever my father hit me or was in one of his crazy punishment moods, she would disappear, leaving me stranded in the company of an extremely cruel man, who had no idea of how children needed to be cared for. I bitched and carried on about how unfair life was, coming face to face with my anger, my victimhood, and my inability to choose another way to look at what I had experienced as a child and as a caretaker to my unmistakably narcissistic, and abusive mother. It was easy to blame those who had treated me badly.

Joan and her mother, Josephine
When I found myself sobbing as I wrote or had bouts of depression, I took time off from the project. I enjoyed long walks, worked in my garden, and spent time doing other pleasurable things. When I returned to the work, I saw change.

Once I began understanding what was causing my pain and took time to work with it, it began to ebb. I joined a meditation group and began an extensive program of self-care that included weekly sessions of Yoga and Pilates. Slowly the broken pieces of my life began coming back together again as I rediscovered and accepted who I was. I took a trip back to Long Island, New York, where I grew up, and visited the numerous homes and towns I had lived in and found my inner child, still clinging tightly to the past, yearning to be rescued.

Things took a huge turn when I had my own run-in with cancer. But as the problem resolved, I realized I had a chance to start living my life over again, and decided to leave my victimhood behind.

It was the digging into the past and the writing that finally brought me peace and an acceptance of my parents and myself. Also came gratefulness, compassion, and forgiveness for my parents who were running from their own past and the pain they carried. As I’ve written in the epilogue of my memoir, “To be able to see my feelings appear on the screen in front of me, and then to watch them change over time as I rewrite, edit, and heal, is magical. It’s like being able to watch the day-by-day knitting together of a broken bone.”

How about you? Can you share your healing journey through writing?

Joan Z. Rough is a visual artist and writer. Her poetry has appeared in a variety of journals, and is included in Mariflo Stephens’ anthology, Some Say Tomato. Her first book, Australian Locker Hooking: A New Approach to a Traditional Craft, was published in 1980. Scattering Ashes, A Memoir of Letting Go was recently published by She Writes Press. She lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband, Bill, her two dogs, Sam and Max, and crazy cat Lilliput.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Travel Leads To Writing: Notes From Nepal

The road is yours and mine. It leads east and west, north and south and if we wish to take it, we learn from it. If you are a writer and writing is your calling, your “partner” in life, as it is in mine, it leads to yet another experience, another adventure, another destination. 

As Ernest Hemingway wrote:
”I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, ‘Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.’ So finally I would write one true sentence, and then go on from there. It was easy then because there was always one true sentence that I knew or had seen or had heard someone say.”
Travel “prompts” that “one true sentence." It prompts that observation, conversation, experience that connects us.

Notes from Nepal: September 2016.

How do we reconcile that some have so much and some so little? Perhaps like Buddha we chalk it up to all life is suffering caused by three evils: ignorance, anger and greed. As a writer I want to pursue this; as writers it is our job to offer our readers “the heart of darkness” and search for meaning and redemption in the light.

As a writer traveling the world, especially now in this time and this place, it is healthy to stand back and look at the larger picture, get out of the little bubble in which most of us live and see how “the other half” lives. There but for the grace of God go I.

As I travel throughout Nepal I soak up the vivid colors, the temples and monasteries tucked away behind fog-filled hillsides and meadows. I watch the clouds part to reveal the iridescent snow-capped Himalayas soaring five miles high while below in a village I swelter in 95 degree heat and humidity. There’s a good reason Nepal was never colonized. It was just too tough a terrain and the weather too harsh.

Contrasts abound. Yet one constant is poverty, abject poverty.

In Nepal the tin roofs of makeshift hovels are held down by rocks and nonexistent sewage systems are the norm for millions of people. This trip is an experience, I think. Despite the heat, the humidity, the rebellion of my intestinal tract, too soon I will be back in the boring, bland routine of my life in the suburbs. So I pay attention.

High blood pressure in Nepal is epidemic our tour guide informs us. Poverty and joblessness does that to people. I see them sitting on old crates and cinder blocks, young men and old alike, watching the unending line of cars and trucks crawl by on our pot-filled bumpy road as our little tour group of six travels to Chitwan National Park. It takes us seven hours to go 150 miles.

In Chitwan, a huge block of alluvial grasslands and subtropical forests, we watch elephants being bathed in early morning sunlight and crocodiles napping on river banks.

We had left Kathmandu where traffic congestion makes driving through Manhattan seem like a country romp and the unending cacophony of car horns assaults the senses. Traffic lights haven’t been replaced, testament to the devastating earthquake two years ago that almost destroyed the county’s lifeline: tourism. “It’s very slowly coming back . . . very slowly,” our guide, a young and intelligent Nepalese man who speaks very good English, informs us.

This is reality, not virtual reality. Hardly anyone is texting. I don’t see kids with cell phones glued to their ears. One little boy we meet in Bandipur, a hilltop settlement, prepares for a kite flying festival with a kite cobbled together out of used candy wrappers. Two little boys play in trees, rocking up and down on their leafy branches. I wonder where their imaginations take them.

Light slants across brilliant green rice fields as the evening sun sets across a cerulean sky. Old men hunched over carrying bales of straw on their backs walk dirt roads where dogs sleep oblivious to passing cars and motorbikes. Women squat in front of riverbanks washing clothes.

For those trapped without an education or prospects, life is beyond one’s control, acceptance is survival. The people are so lovely, so kind, I think, not nasty like some in other places I’ve traveled. Instead, they are grateful and trusting. There’s a sense of mindfulness – of living in the moment – that pervades Nepal. I want to bottle all of this and take it home with me.

How about you? Do you have a travel experience that prompted new writing?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Memoir Writer's Advice: “Dare to be Audacious”

Have you taken a bold path to penning your memoir? In this essay author Kellie Springer encourages the writer to be "audacious."

"Get out of your head and your own way. Cease with the shoulds and the musts," she writes. "It seems to me that train of thought does nothing but halt, or, at the very least, limit moving forward."
I first met Kellie Springer two years ago at a business gathering of women entrepreneurs. Soon after, Kellie began attending the Women’s Writing Circle to read aloud excerpts of her memoir-in-progress. Her words touched our group in many ways, not the least of which was her willingness to dig deep, reveal her vulnerabilities and embark on a journey of self-discovery.

In the safety and support of the Women's Writing Circle Kellie says she found the encouragement to honor her voice and tell her story of childhood abuse. Here is her journey of writing and publishing her memoir. ~ Susan

I recently launched the release of my memoir, Relentless: A Journey of Forgiveness, out into the ethers of the world via Amazon where all things necessary can be found. I never had a burning desire to be a writer, only an internal suggestion from the universe that I do so. It was a debut four years in the making and its beginnings quite humble.

I use the term ‘humble’ because I have taken not one writing course, except what I was offered in high school. In fact, my computer skills were so poor that I had to ask my younger son to teach me how to copy, cut and paste. It has become something I’ve mastered, but only after following the instructions I initially wrote down for myself during my son’s tutorial. In fact, I didn’t even know if my words were intelligible as I had never before read them out loud to others.

So you see I was quite ill-prepared to take on the creation of a book. I was not blind to that truth, but instead I paid it no mind because that truth did nothing to serve me in my purpose of sharing my journey with others. My only plan - begin.

I did nothing conventionally. And by that I mean:
1) I did not set time aside each day to write.

2) I hadn’t formulated the main ideas or theme of my book.

3) I only wrote when I felt pulled to do so.

4) I did not write in chapters but instead vignettes.

5) Each writing entry had nothing to do with the one before or after it.

6) When I felt complete with my initial entries I printed the lot of them and literally cut them into sections with scissors in the hopes of creating some connection amongst them all.

In time I sought editorial help from others and dared to speak out loud the words I had so haphazardly typed.

And it worked. I did not have any clear path or goal in mind other than to take one step and then another, without the aid of a step-by-step guide. Those millions of baby steps took me here to tell you of my crooked path to my newfound role as an author.

My memoir is as perfect as its creator, which of course means it is not perfect at all but is instead “perfectly imperfect.” By that I mean my story and sharing is authentic because I approached only with the intent to remain true to myself and my voice. You will see the flaws in my character as well as my strengths, something which I believe stands true for my writing as well.

Some have called me courageous, but others might prefer the adjective audacious. Perhaps, it’s a bit of both. However you choose to label it, I tell you my unconventional path so that you know it is available to you as well . . . whatever the universe might be calling you to do.
Susan and Kellie in the Circle

Forward is the only word that is of importance. “What do I need to do today?” (At times the answer is ‘nothing’ as our work sometimes requires simmering.) It’s a fabulous question and guiding principle versus the mantra, “Let me get all my ducks in a row.” Ducks don’t always cooperate and I have found that where you are headed and how you will get there is revealed and available when its time comes.

And so, I encourage you to do what it is “they” and you fear cannot be done. Find the spark of audacity we all were born with and fuel it with thoughts of, “Of course I can,” and, “Yes, I will.” And then, as Nike suggests, just do it.

Have you taken an "audacious" path to penning your memoir, and, if so, can you share your experience?

In Relentless: A Journey of Forgiveness, Kellie Springer shares her very human experience on the path to forgiveness for the abuses she suffered as a child. She explores the depth of trauma and the long journey to healing, self-awareness, and self-compassion. Readers will be captivated by her candid story, anxiously accompanying Kellie through her walk of personal growth, and finally celebrating her realization of compassion and forgiveness. In telling her story, Kellie seeks to inspire others to own their stories and the truths that lie within themselves, in order that they may live from a place of authenticity.

Kellie Springer RN, is the founder of Anam Cara Kellie, LLC, where she practices as a Reiki Master with a gift for intuitive insights to help her clients explore themselves and their lives more deeply. Prior to that, she worked as a psychiatric nurse for thirteen years. She joyfully shares her life in Pennsylvania with her husband and two children.

Contact the author at

Link to my book:  

Monday, September 12, 2016

How Much Should the Memoir Writer Reveal?

I’ve been thinking about Hillary Clinton and the criticism she has endured for not revealing her diagnosis of pneumonia right away; this after being the most transparent candidate in political history and working grueling “25-hour” work days. I have to admit it reminds me of what the memoir writer endures.

First, there is the push for constant transparency of her life, her story, her family, her choices. Next comes the blogging and demands of social media to keep revealing more and more, all the while writing yet another book. And unless we write some vapid, feel-good story, we open ourselves up to criticism, vitriol and judgment by others.

There was no roadmap for this, no little Golden Book to show us the way.

I think of Elizabeth Gilbert who bared her own soul yet again last week with the announcement that she is in love with a woman, her best friend. This might have come as a shock to some, but not when you consider that she is a memoir writer, illuminating “the truth” of her story even a decade after the publication of Eat, Pray Love.
As I wrote on this blog last week, where do we draw the line? How do we – or should we market a highly personal memoir? This resulted in a rather spirited discussion on social media as others have obviously been wondering the same thing. Several women pointed to their readers who offered “how much my story helped them” as making it all worth it. One author noted, however, that the publication of her memoir ended an immensely important relationship.

How exhausting it becomes to keep revealing and revealing. Perhaps, like Hillary, we will finally succumb to illness, almost collapse and need to go home, rest up and restore and renew ourselves as all the while the jackals circle demanding still more and more.

Our hope - my hope - is that by writing the cogent memoir, it is often a healing journey and offers messages and lessons learned that resonate with the reader.

If we truly believe our stories make a difference and help others going through similar life experiences then maybe we are on surer footing. The “art of memoir” is not for the faint of heart, despite how wearying and soul-searching it becomes. We believe in our story. We are breaking new ground as women sharing our stories and finding our voices, things I feel men have long taken for granted as the “right of the masculine.” 

Our guidepost, our "little golden book", if there is one, rests in the belief that we are using our talents, our skills and our abilities to help make this a better world.

As I travel to Nepal later this week I pray that such an exotic locale offers a chance to ponder more of the writer within. I’ll be taking a break from this blog for the next three weeks, not bad considering that I have missed no more than six weeks over the last seven years. I'm going to give myself a little rest and renewal. See you in October.

How much do we reveal? How much honesty and transparency do we demand of ourselves as memoir writers?

Monday, September 5, 2016

Marketing the 'Highly Personal' Memoir

John’s class – the Class of ’71 – meets this coming weekend for its 45th reunion at West Point. 

Over the past several months I had received all the emails accorded the widows of the class; the invitations to the river cruise on the Hudson; the bus trip into NYC for shopping and sightseeing; the Friday night dinner; the tailgating party before the Army football game. I had seriously considered going. Then I asked myself, do I want to spend time with these people or do I want to sell books?

West Point brings back vivid memories of fall weekends when John and I traveled there as a young married couple. The possibilities then felt endless. Going there now to hawk a book based on his experiences at the academy during Vietnam felt wrong, especially considering the nature of the book.

A friend who read A Portrait of Love and Honor told me that my late husband John M. Cavalieri had a “complex connection” with West Point. Anyone who has read the book (a novel based on a true story) knows this is true. A soldier questions the military and comes to terms with a system – to quote a popular phrase – “rigged” against those who do not "fit in." He ultimately pays the highest price.

This story is complex, elegiac and not suited to "mainstream marketing," my older son, Alex, observed of his father's memoir which is the centerpiece to A Portrait of Love and Honor. How lucky I am to have a son who offers this insight and advice!

Just yesterday a reader said this to me about A Portrait of Love and Honor, "The story is highly personal . . ."

How do you - or do you - market the 'highly personal' memoir? This is a question each author must answer for herself. While some might argue that all memoir is highly personal, questioning "sacred cows" is not popular, although certain publishing companies will fail to educate the author in this for obvious reasons. (Trending topics form another category, in my opinion.) In embracing controversy, we raise eyebrows, which is a writer's duty.

The reunion also coincides with what would have been John’s 69th birthday, Sept. 11, 1947. John’s life was cut short due to what the Veterans Administration deemed a "service-related" illness. John died at the age of 47, a “casualty of war,” surely as if he had died in the jungles of Vietnam.

Before he died, John told me he had made peace with himself and with the system. In writing his story he asked the right questions, found the answers – and the forgiveness – he sought. What mattered most to him were his sons and his wife.

While no systems, no establishments are ever perfect, they do owe those who vow allegiance a willingness to be held accountable for their failures. It’s obvious to those who read A Portrait of Love and Honor that our military veterans are often discriminated against, not only in the military, but in the workplace.

At John's funeral 22 years ago under flawlessly beautiful October skies at West Point, two white-gloved Army officers handed me a folded American flag. That flag remains folded and stored in a closet in my basement. It’s not that I don’t value or appreciate it, rather I wish I could have held John all these years, not a flag.

(The photo pictured above was taken with two cadets at the West Point Founders Day Gala less than a year before John died in 1994.)

How about you? Have you written a highly personal story? How do you feel about marketing it? 

Monday, August 29, 2016

A Solitary Life Offers Memoir Lessons

I first learned about May Sarton while attending a writing conference and the subject of my next book came up. “I’m writing a memoir tentatively titled A Woman Alone,” I said. At which point a writer offered: "Have you read Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton?"

I hadn't. In fact, I had never heard of her. Yet her memoir is one of those gems I will go back to, reread and relish.

For the memoirist, the book is a must-read. The very solitude that fosters Sarton's acute loneliness is also necessary for the artist to create, most especially when delving into the deep and murky waters of life story writing.

How often have I heard in the Women's Writing Circle the lament about the lack of time one finds to devote to the craft; the demands of everyday living impinging on the necessary time it takes to learn and hone the craft - not through taking classes or academia - but through trial and error and the discipline required to write every day in the privacy of one's own room in order to become a better writer?

Which is why I love Sarton. She understands that this discipline and this time alone is the great "classroom" of the writer.

This journal opens in September with the words:“Begin here. It is raining.” Simple, yet evocative of what is to come. As Sarton's journal unfolds over the next twelve months, she ponders the loneliness of living alone, yet rejoices in her work.
“We are one, the house and I, and I am happy to be alone – time to think, time to be. This kind of open-ended time is the only luxury that really counts and I feel stupendously rich to have it.”
The author offers her readers honesty and an open heart about her life living in the solitude of rural New Hampshire with just a few half-wild cats and a pet parrot named Punch. The isolation can result in what Sarton calls “neurotic depression.” Yet, as she notes, it is the distractions of everyday life that foster "resentment" in her. The creative life often means selfish devotion to the work and forgoing a certain commitment to the demands of relationships and other people.

Sarton died in 1995 of breast cancer at her home in Maine, yet this memoir is testament to the power of the memoir genre. She – the poet, the novelist, the memoirist and the woman – is alive on the page.

May Sarton
Her tender and tough ruminations about friendship; the wonder of the first white peonies in the garden; waking up to “the meadow bright silver with frost;” the death of her beloved pet bird . . . her own love affair that had turned sour by the end of the year, breathes life in all its richness and despair on the page.

These are the ordinary moments and days of our lives rendered extraordinary due to the writer's ability to observe in detail and depth.

A native of Belgium, Sarton traveled frequently throughout Europe and met the great Virginia Woolf of whom she writes:
“What does it matter whether she is major or minor, whether she imitated Joyce (I believe she did not), whether her genius was a limited one, limited by class? What remains true is that one cannot pick up a single one of her books and read a page without feeling more alive. If art is not to be life-enhancing, what is it to be? Half the world is feminine – why is there resentment at female-oriented art?”

Why indeed? And if art is “life-enhancing” – which I believe it is – then Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude belongs to the ages; an intricately beautiful testimony to the struggles the single woman without family faces, yet the incalculable joy in just being alive, alone with her art, her voice, her story.

When I finished this book, I pondered my own writing, my own work-in-progress memoir. I felt Sarton had set the bar so high it seemed almost pointless to continue my own "journal of a solitude." But then I thought about the lesson I took away from her memoir. Writing the confessional is always a valiant effort . . . and when we do "the days fly by" as she puts it, in the joy that comes with the enormous privilege of having the time to think, to write and share our journeys.