I’ll try anything to convince myself that even though I’m writing alone in my office, I’m not really alone. That’s why I love connecting with other writers online, particularly those who are working on memoirs.
“Meeting” Rachel Held Evans, whose spiritual memoir will be released in early 2010, was particularly exciting because like me, she has a journalism background. Evolving in Monkey Town is her first book, and since she’s several steps ahead of me in the writing and publishing process, I figured I could learn a thing or two from her. And so could you.
Rachel lives in Dayton, Tennessee. She’s represented by literary agent Rachelle Gardner — Evans recently offered tips to first-time authors on her agent’s blog — and her book is being published by Zondervan, which specializes in Christian literature.
Let’s have a round of applause for Rachel Held Evans! (Roar from the audience.) Please, I know you’re excited, but let’s hold questions until the end.
Alexis: Tell us a bit about your book, Evolving in Monkey Town.
Rachel: I live in what is arguably the most religious town in the country – Dayton, Tennessee, home of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925. Inspired by this environment, I wrote a spiritual memoir about growing up in the conservative evangelical subculture and seriously questioning my faith as a young adult. My story is intended to be an encouragement for other young adults who have doubts about Christianity or who are frustrated with current expressions of evangelicalism. Currently in the editing stages, it will be published by .
How did you go about finding an agent and publisher?
I’d been piddling around with the book for a couple of years when I finally decided to put together a proposal. (Tip #1: For nonfiction, I recommend writing and pitching a proposal BEFORE completing the book.) I bought a couple of books on how to write a non-fiction book proposal, followed those guidelines, and put one together. (Tip #2: Even for creative non-fiction, a proposal is helpful because it forces you to outline and summarize the book and to consider how your book fits into the market.)
Once I had a proposal, I met with an author acquaintance of mine, who liked it and recommended me to his agent. (Tip #3: You gotta be willing to take advantage of ANY connections you might have in order to break into this very competitive business.) My friend’s agent was not interested, but passed it on to his associate – Rachelle Gardner – who was interested. (Tip #4: Rejections are a part of the process; get used to it.)
Rachelle pitched my proposal to several publishers, and after a few painful rejections, I got a “yes” from Zondervan. (Tip #5: Try to get an agent.) I signed a contract with Zondervan in September of 2008 with a deadline to send in the first draft on April 1, 2009. (Tip #6: Send your stuff in on time; editors will love you for it.) Finished the first draft by deadline and am now working with editor to polish it up. We should see the book on shelves within a few months. (Tip #7: The whole process takes a really, really, really long time, especially for the first book; prepare for a long ride.)
As a first-time author, can you share with us something you learned through this process that you wish you had known beforehand?
This is going to sound cheesy, but I genuinely had no idea how rewarding the process would be. If anything, I wish I had been willing to put myself out there sooner. Every day I am amazed that someone is paying me to do what I love.
What writing and publishing challenges are unique to memoir? How did you overcome them?
Memoirs are strange little creatures. While they deal with true facts, the good ones always include the elements of fiction – carefully constructed plots, strong character development, and vivid imagery. They can be a challenge to write because most people are just not that interested in your story unless 1) you are famous or 2) your readers feel they can relate. So the most important thing to keep in mind whileis your intended audience. You have to constantly ask yourself – “Why would my readers care? How can they feel connected to this story? What is the universal truth behind this experience?”
Memoirs also pose a challenge because most of the books on writing and publishing are about either fiction or non-fiction. I recommend reading both, and then making a plan for yourself that best suits your book. I also recommend reading lots and lots of successful memoirs that are similar to your own. (Since I’m writing a spiritual memoir, I read and Donald Miller. If you are writing a travel memoir, read .) Take notes.
With memoirs, some agents/publishers simply need a proposal and a few sample chapters to make a decision; others will want to see the whole book. Again, I recommend writing a proposal first – if nothing else but to give you some direction. I was fortunate to get a contract based solely on my proposal and two sample chapters.
In my opinion, the best way to overcome just about any publishing/writing/marketing challenge is to know your audience like the back of your hand. What makes them laugh? What makes them cry? What do they worry about? Where do they hang out? How do they spend their money? Where do they get their news? If you know who your readers are, you will write about things they care about. If you know who your readers are, you can more easily build a platform that will attract a publisher. If you know who your readers are, you know where to find them when it’s time to sell the book.
What are your favorite blogs, books, publications for writing inspiration?
My agent, Rachelle Gardner has a great blog. I loved Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott — a good mix of non-fiction and fiction advice. I always like to read a little poetry before I write — reminds me of how very important every single word and syllabul really is.
Have more questions for Rachel? Leave them in the comments. She has promised to check back here and answer them.
UPDATE: There’s more helpful information from Rachel in the comments, so scroll down.