Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Agent Search: The Beginning

I'm now getting ready to find an agent in the already tried and failed manner: the dreaded query letter.

I plan to start my search by narrowing down my list to agents who accept email queries, not because I'm lazy and don't want to spend the money for postage, but because I suspect that tech-savvy agents will have the 21st century tools to promote I, Driven: memoir of a teen's involuntary commitment.

Obviously, I want someone who will work hard for my book and advocate for its sale.

Also, I will consider only AAR agents, not because I think all non-AAR agents are crooks; however, this field is overrun by scammers who prey on writers, and they tend not to belong to AAR, so putting such a requirement in place is just another safeguard.

I have read the warnings on various sites about faux agents like Melanie Mills (who has died several deaths and all kinds of devastating maladies, which is why she has left the building with her clients' money). I don't have time (and certainly not the money) to deal with people like that.

Also, before querying anyone, you can be sure I'll be checking each agent out, just to make sure that
  • There are no significant writer warnings against that agent.
  • They actually represent my kind of book.
  • They as individuals don't have too many clients (In other words, a large firm is okay).
  • They are excited about my book. I figure that it's pointless to work with someone who is just lukewarm about my work.

I'll also look on their sites and blogs to get a feel for how they operate. Some agents have placed personal statements on their sites--not a perfect way of vetting agents, but a help.

I'll be keeping a blog diary about my search, though I won't be naming names.

Best, Jennifer

Saturday, October 13, 2007

On Social Convention...

I consider myself fortunate: I came out of my institution experience fairly well-adjusted, though my “inclination to conflict with social convention,” as diagnosed back in 1969 by one of my doctors, has persisted and will continue to persist.

But I don’t view that as a problem. The world is filled with too many people who espouse the conventional wisdom of the day. I place very little stock in such constructs, for wasn’t it conventional wisdom that fought to retain slavery, keep segregation on the books, and deny women the right to vote?

In Germany, didn’t so-called conventional wisdom nudge citizens to fall right into line behind Hitler?

Ralph Waldo Emerson articulated the herd mentality best:

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

The world needs those who would flout conventional wisdom, not warehouse and silence them.

What is a Memoir?

Just as I was about to wrap up for today, I ran across this posting on Garden and Hearth's Book Club site (with Barbara Doyen), which defines "memoir":

Memoirs are perennially popular with many new books coming out each year. In our recent discussion of the bestseller, Night, by Elie Wiesel, we mentioned that the book was a memoir, not an autobiography or biography. But what is a memoir, anyway?

Memoir, Autobiography, Biography

A memoir is a special kind of autobiography, usually involving a public portion of the author's life as it relates to a person, historic event, or thing. The text is about the personal knowledge and/or experiences of the author.

In contrast, an autobiography covers the author's entire life to the present, and is expected to include details about his or her public and private life. A biography is someone’s life story written by another person...

More (but be careful; I got a pop up)

From time to time, I'll be posting helpful snippets for any readers out there who may be aspiring writers.


Jennifer Semple Siegel

James Frey's Juggler

Bear with me; there's a point here.
From one of my old postings on Writer’s Weekly:

After viewing today's Oprah [January 26, 2006], I have come away with the following thoughts:
  1. The memoirist is responsible for presenting a manuscript that is truthful and honest. It was interesting that Frey always referred to the people in his book as "characters," which, of course, is a fictional term.
  2. The publisher is responsible for requiring documentation of the essential facts (e.g., police reports and other concrete records) and checking them out. Nan Talese, Frey's editor, also appeared on Oprah. Talk about waffly, and it's clear that she is beginning the process of distancing herself from the book. Oprah asked Ms. Talese why her firm doesn't hire ($20,000-30,000 a year) a researcher/fact checker to check out the facts of their memoirs. Talese said that the book "felt" authentic and that it didn't even occur to her and her staff that it wasn't true. (No one had a lawyer with them, which surprised me).
  3. Regarding memoirs, the publishing industry is probably going to change in that publishers will publish fewer memoirs, but the ones that they do publish will be thoroughly researched and vetted--at least in the short term.
  4. One cannot document a PERCEPTION of an author--how an author views an event cannot really be proved or disproved; that will ALWAYS remain a controversial aspect of the memoir genre. However, the event itself must be true and not created out of the memoirist's head.
  5. My opinion: Frey fessed up because he was caught, not because it was the right thing to do. I don't get a sense that he really learned from this situation. Everyone talks about his "bravery," but he wasn't brave at all. He had no choice but to face the wrath of Oprah. AND IT WAS UGLY. The nice, supportive Oprah was gone. She went for Frey's juggler. She knew she had been conned, and she didn't like it one bit.
  6. Ironically, A Million Little Pieces will continue to sell and will probably sit at top of the bestseller list for a long time, but readers will look at it differently. It will be read as the fiction it is. Also, readers will read the book out of curiosity, but I doubt that it will have much impact in terms of alcoholism and drug addiction.
  7. If I were Frey, I'd go into hiding for a while and stop writing memoirs. If he sticks to fiction, billed as fiction, then, after an appropriate "rehab," he will still have his lucrative writing career. After all, this event happened in the United States of America, and we're a very forgiving culture.

I include this because #7 is coming to fruition; Frey now has a book deal with HarperCollins to publish Bright Shiny Morning (a novel). Part of me is thoroughly p'od, the other part simply resigned.

Also, note the sentence in red; I meant to say "jugular," but I was in a hurry and didn't proofread. I took a friendly and gentle ribbing from fellow posters at Writer's Weekly.

Wendy said,

Jennifer, I agree with what you've said, but I'm both surprised and disappointed that Oprah "went for Frey's juggler."

  1. How does a newbie writer afford to have his own juggler?
  2. What would he use a juggler for? (Is hiring a juggler something all aspiring writers should do?)
  3. Why attack him?
  4. Why not go for Frey's jugular and leave the poor juggler alone?

I decided not to be too embarrassed about my gaff.

Instead, I wrote a poem, something I don't do too often:

James Frey's Juggler

James Frey’s
joggled juggler
flees from a mob
of cuckolded clubbers–
through WritersWeekly dot com,
rehabbing his much-wanted jugular.
A performer too poorly paid
to finagle any longer,
he cooks up
his own memoir:
Mr. Frey’s Trickster
and One Million Manipulated Characters
Who Tumbled to Spill All--
back on her lexicon diet,
devours Crispy Nan,
fried Freys–sucks
juggler jugular

The poem was relevant for about a week--that's the difficulty with topical poems about subjects that fizzle quickly from the popular culture.

Enough said.

Best, Jennifer

Memoir: Truth vs. "Truthiness"

(Above photo [taken in August 2004]: Cherokee Mental Health Institute, where, on February 19, 1969, I was escorted by a Woodbury County sheriff and a female escort.)
In January 2006, as I was wrapping up one of my numerous revisions of I, Driven... (then titled Driven to Cherokee), Oprah Winfrey discovered, via TheSmokingGun.com, that James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, had basically fabricated much of his memoir, which had been an Oprah Book Club Selection. Say what you will about Oprah, but she wields a lot of power in the book industry, and one does not want to get on her bad side.
Well, as a memoirist, I felt as though I had already gotten on Oprah's bad side, and I hadn't even shot out of the gate yet. It was just an unfortunate time to be wrapping up a memoir and getting ready to shop it around. The publishing industry was undoubtedly shutting their collective purses, holding back those six-figure advances from authors of bad boy, bad girl memoirs. On national TV, Nan Talese, Frey's agent, was thoroughly spanked by Oprah--I was glad NOT to be an agent or a publisher. In fact, I was relieved at not being a known memoirist.
The only good thing about this time: my memoir wasn't really ready to make its debut rounds to agents. It was too long and too, well, weedy, filled with newspaper clips that, while interesting in themselves, did not serve my story well.
Also, the Frey debacle gave me a chance to reflect on the truthiness aspects of my own memoir and cut passages that I simply couldn't substantiate with facts and/or vivid memory. The basic facts of my memoir are correct. I have court and hospital records, and I have 90-plus letters exchanged between Jeff Brown (who I later married and then divorced 10 years later) and me; those records document the minutiae of my Sioux City and institution life between late January 1969 to May 1969. Also, internet sources were able to confirm what I remember about social change and cultural events.
But, in the end, I still had to rely heavily on memory about events that had transpired 35 years ago. While the letters were helpful and my records illuminating, I had to reach back and pull "feelings" back to the surface. In essence, I had to revert back to being 18 again. It was an odd place to be, especially as a 54-year-old woman with a grown son and granddaughters.
I even developed a bit of a crush on my ex-husband Jeff, but even then I understood where those feelings were coming from and why they were necessary. When I told Jeff about my literary crush, we had a good chuckle over it; we are both happily remarried to other people.
Paradoxically, I had forgotten some important events (which the letters eventually jarred loose), and had carried with me some minor memories and images, such as this one:
What if Stoney [my then ex-boyfriend] showed up, in full armor, galloping up the Cherokee hill on a white steed, totally off dope and no longer dealing, ready to rescue me? Would I go with him? I honestly don't know.
Even now, I can envision Stoney riding on that white steed, coming to sweep and rescue me from the institution.
What I hadn't remembered (but what was written in a letter):
[Stoney and I] didn’t have much to talk about, now that I think about it, and I don’t even know if he was that smart–he didn’t really talk that much about anything, except dope, and toward the end, not even the sex was all that great.
For years, I had carried a romanticized image of Stoney; if nothing else, writing this memoir has knocked some reality into my head, forcing me to remember him as he was: a misogynist, drug addict and dealer, user of people, and male chauvinist pig.
In essence, even in the best of times, memoir writing is a risky proposition:
  1. Memory can be flawed and/or skewed. What I remember about that time may differ from what my family and friends remember--such a disconnect could cause family strife. In the case of my ex-husband, I actually gave him drafts of the book to read. Over the years, we have maintained a good relationship, and I didn't want to blindside him with a published "tell-all" book. I figured that any fallout should occur before publication. It was a good call; at first, he was a bit uncomfortable with having his past uncovered--I can't say that I blame him. Surprisingly, he eventually came around and is now looking forward to seeing the published version. I did delete a few problematic passages from the final version--sometimes life forces us to make compromises.
  2. "Outting" other people and their foibles and youthful indiscretions can be embarrassing and actually harmful to them. I made a commitment to protect when I could and to minimize when I couldn't completely shield a person.
  3. Exposing one's troublesome past not only affects people from the past, but also people currently in one's life, such as children and new spouses. I have had to come to terms with the fact that my granddaughters will some day read my book.
  4. My life will suddenly become an open book to strangers; it's one thing to couch truth in one's fiction, but a memoir should be what it purports to be: The Truth as the writer sees it.

After Frey's frying at the hand of Oprah, I reworked my author's note:

Some names and/or minor characteristics of real persons have been changed to protect their privacy. Nicknames have been used for some real persons, most notably, Stoney.

Some minor locales have been changed. The Crystal Ship was a real rock/head shop, but the name and locale have been changed.

For coherence and literary purposes, some passages have been compressed, expanded, or shifted around. Some scenes and dialogue have been recreated.

The time lines, late 1968 to May 9, 1969, April 2002, and August 2004 are accurate, and the facts of the case are correct, including the amount of time I spent in Cherokee, Iowa.

Events for which I have no documentation and/or memory of exact dates have been presented as flashbacks.

For my late grandparents’ first person narratives, I have referred to interview summaries contained in my hospital records–interviews conducted and summarized by my psychiatrist (and other hospital personnel). I have also relied on my personal knowledge about these people who raised me. The voices I have recreated are the voices I remember, and may not reflect the memories and viewpoints of my family. Chapter 54, the scene in the Sioux City police station, is a possible scenario that occurred between my grandfather and the police matron. The chapter is based on textual clues contained in my court records. When the paperwork for my hearing was being filled out, I was not present; I was locked in another room.

Minor factual errors, albeit unintentional, are mine alone.

I suspect that my note may be overkill, but better to be safe than sorry.

I can always revise it again.

Best, Jennifer

Friday, October 12, 2007

In Quest of a Literary Agent...

Okay, I admit it.

I am actively seeking a literary agent.

And I'm using the big bad internet to do it; I have posted blogs and web pages. I have registered dot-com generic domains having to do do with literary agents, memoirs, books, and literature in general and redirected them to Literary Agent Wanted, my formal "Call for a Literary Agent," so to speak.

Fifty-plus targeted domains have been directed to one blogger site--cheaper than hiring a webmaster and a publicist. Evidently, writers aren't all that savvy about using domain names as keywords because registering cool generic dot-coms was like picking big red juicy apples at harvest.

I have actually created two Blogger sites, the first manipulated to remain static and uncluttered by day-to-day blog posts, and this second dynamic blog for my day-to-day ruminations about my search. If I work it right, surfers will be able to navigate back and forth between the two blogs and barely sense they are two different sites. We'll see how that works out.

I expect my agent search to be long and arduous. So far, my success rate with agents has been about nil because, as most of you know, it's a buyer's market: too many writers, not enough publishers.

Yeah, I'm breaking all the unspoken "literary rules" by plastering blurbs about my memoir and myself all over the internet--tooting my own horn, rah, rah, rah...

Seeking literary representation is supposed to be a quiet, genteel quest, conducted through the conventions of the U.S.P.S., and all envelopes must include the ubiquitous S.A.S.E.; unfortunately, this time-honored tradition is also a great time waster, and I'm 57 years old. At my age, one begins to think like T.S. Eliot's Prufrock, who "measured out his life with coffee spoons."

I will be also sending out traditional query letters--I'm not totally mad--but I will be offering prospective agents the option of clicking on my online synopsis and excerpts.

I spent three years working on I, Driven: memoir of a teen's involuntary commitment, which has gone through three titles, numerous revisions, and many cuts. The first draft, about 700 pages, took about eight months to write. This "final" version, trimmed to 415 pages, took over two years, and now, for better or worse, it's ready to go forth, out into the cruel world.

Here, I'll be blogging about this quest for an agent. I probably won't be posting every day because I do have other lives: as a teacher, an activist, and a domainer (probably not a very good one yet), and I tend to flit from topic to topic.

Such is the creative life.

Best, Jennifer