• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Here We Are Now, Entertain Us

Remember the moment in BIG when Tom Hanks presents his ideas for a new toy and his jealous colleague played by John Heard snarks back, “I don’t get it,” in an attempt to short circuit the presentation. Of course, it backfired because this is a feel good movie.

In publishing, there is an equivalent moment at editorial board. A passionate editor (maybe young) presents a book he or she loves and wants to acquire. Some (usually senior and vaguely threatened) editor says, “Who’s the market?” or “Who’s going to read that?” Look, they are  valid questions, but it’s the smug, dismissive way they are delivered that  sounds more like: can I piss on your face?

Maybe I’m sensitive, but that’s what it sounded like to me. An editor has to come prepared to a meeting knowing that she is going to face the eventuality of that question being asked, whether by John Heard or an editor with a few flops he’s trying to live down.

And that is why it is most excellent for you, dear author, to have some sense of that. Of course you will work with your agent to put a pitch together. But if you’re pitching to get an agent, then you should also try to make some cogent comparisons. And don’t say you’re the next EATPRAYLOVE. Comparing yourself to an inexplicable phenomenon is a mad mix of hubris and magical thinking. Of course, if you find a lovable animal stuffed into an overhead compartment of a plane that goes on to rescue everyone from hijackers, then you, by all means, should compare your book to DEWEYMARLEY et al. This is a hungry market.

Ask yourself, who is going to read my book. Actually, fuck that. Just write it.

20 Responses

  1. i just read an email from a writing friend who is recovering from a CNF workshop at Tin House. She’s established herself as a fiction writer (just sold a novel to a name publisher) and is now indulging a long-simmering desire to write non-fiction. The workshop leader pounced, literally and figuratively pounced on her essay, physically throwing herself into the critique. And my friend thought, she hates me. She really really dislikes me personally. Until the end of the workshop when my friend read the opening of her soon-to-be published novel, after which the leader approached her to say how impressed she was by the excerpt and offered to blurb the book. Point being, it was easier for my writing friend to swallow being hated than having the work she presented hated. Which I think says something obvious but important about writing, how invested we in what we are trying to say, how desperately we want our readers to “get it”. Hate me just don’t hate my words.

  2. I loved the “can I piss on your face?” moment. Been there, with other things.

    I think it’s a great question, especially for nonfiction. I had lunch yesterday with a friend who just gave up on a book about the supposedly glamorous expat experience in a certain country being over-rated. “Who wants to read that?” she asked. “People like the myth.”

    Good question. Who needs a book demystifying a myth they were not that invested in, but mostly enjoyed. They might care enough to read a mag story, but a whole book? Why is that important to their lives. Other expats in the particular country would love it. But does she really want to spend several years just to reach that tiny audience?

    That’s the ultimate question. I want to write, but mostly I want to be part of a long, significant conversation. I hope to write things that will resonate for many years, with a wide group of people.

    So I’m not going to write about antique trains–even if I wanted to–unless I find a way to make them interesting to non-TrainPeople.

    Audience matters. It’s crucial. I’m thinking about it a lot now for my next book: particularly where my audience will be 4-5 years from now, when the book hits stores shelves–and for years after.

  3. Love the Nirvana title. I’ll be singing it all day now. My book will appeal to fans of Kurt Cobain?

  4. right now, i’m writing the story that i want to read but no one else seems to have put in front of me yet. something epic. something mystical and wrapped in fairy tales. i’ve been battling with making it appropriate enough for young people for this very purpose, the question of audience…

    but that’s really just not my style. swearing just has such feeling to it! and i figure if i can’t make the characters have the right resonance with out it…well…i am a young writer yet. though i acknowledge this as a downfall…i should be able to work the appropriate churlishness into a character without the aid of profanity…i also can’t help but feel that there would be plenty of people of age who would still be interested. and i’d rather have my world dark and gritty than swallowable and neutered.

  5. Jesus, I don’t know why I’m laboring over a piece of fiction. I have an established blog that serves a small to middling audience who checks in daily to renew their spirit with the mantra “Thank God I’m not her.” Of course, they read it for free. I don’t know that they’d ever buy it. I guess that’s why I’m writing fiction. Maybe they’d buy that? Fuck it, indeed.

  6. Eat, Pray, Puke will be addressed in our new blog, The Happiness Hype. Just launched today, please check out and add your two cents if you wish. This is a response to the on-slaught of “Get Happy Now” self-help books of present day.

  7. “Can I piss on your face?”

    “Ask yourself, who is going to read my book. Actually, fuck that.”

    Sigh. I love this blog.

  8. I seriously ignore requests for comp titles. For the very reason you listed. They don’t want you to disparage yourself or insinuate that you may not be a roaring success but they also don’t want you to mention any classic, meaningful or provocative titles. I’m sorry, this is just dumb to me. Super not trying to read the minds of eye-rolling cynics so I leave it out and we’ll see how that works out.

  9. “Fuck that. Just write it.”
    Thank you for you. I have such a writer’s crush on you and this blog!

  10. Who will read my writing? Quirky geeks like me who like a good laugh. 🙂

  11. i don’t presume anyone will read it and i’m all right with that.

    this process is fraught with self-doubt, pain, pleasure, too much red wine, delirious laughter, obsessions over words/sentences/paragraphs, beginnings and endings, every-fucking-little-thing inbetween. i can’t be thinking about who will read it. i just can’t. it’s too much for me.

    i’m close to the end.

  12. Betsy, you’ve managed to espouse two opposing ideas in one blog post: 1, “consider the audience,” etc.; 2, “forget the audience and write what you want.” It looks as if your commenters have mainly responded to one suggestion or the other, not both. Possibly you wrote much of your post as an agent and former editor, then remembered that you’re also a writer. Maybe you just wanted to throw two pieces of bait to your readers and see which one drew the most bites. More likely the former, I’d guess. Regardless, it’s the two ideas together that seem important to me.

    In the long run, I think writers have to follow both injunctions. Obviously, you can’t be a writer without _writing_ something. You probably can’t get much satisfaction out of writing something that no one else reads. Giving too much weight to the question of what people want to read can lead you astray in many ways, which takes you back to the question of what you want to write. But it’s probably going to be an exercise with a limited payoff (or an exercise in self-indulgence) if it doesn’t reach someone else.

    To descend to the merely personal, what I’m drafting now began with a private impulse–to account for myself and to myself regarding a difficult period. (What it’s about is my mother’s struggle with a disturbed daughter, and my struggle with both of them. I don’t count that as a pitch.) Once I’ve finished doing that, I’ll tackle the issue of whether and how someone else would want to read part of my story. Then the rewrite begins.

  13. I just clicked on the “About Me” tab at the top of this page, but it wasn’t about me at all. I prefer accuracy.

  14. I’ll just write.

  15. It is good to be reminded that the writers aren’t the only ones struggling in this industry.

    Personally, I’m at a point in my life where I’m reading almost exclusively classic literature. There is nothing I’ve read in three years that wouldn’t be taboo for me to use as a comparison to my own work. I guess that’s my fault. (I don’t have anything against modern novels, I’m just…kind of…studying.)

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