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    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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Things Are Happening Every Day

Hi there,
My daughter and I have a very interesting story to tell about our lives and I’m wondering what my next steps should be to turn our story into a book. Since neither one of us are writers, do I contact a publishing company directly? A ghost writer perhaps? 

Thank you so much for any advice you can share.

Dear Mommy Dearest:

This is probably the most frequently asked question I get and yet somehow it always makes me apoplectic. Your story is not interesting, or not inherently interesting. Great writing and great storytelling is the only thing that is interesting. Can you hire a ghost writer to get your story down. Yes, someone will take your money. Hell, how much have you got?

I’m sorry. You seem really nice. The thing is, if you’re famous, people will want to read your story. If you’re not famous, nobody cares. How do you get them to care? Get a local reporter to write a story about you. Better yet, get People magazine to do one of their regular people pieces about you? Find a way to get your story out there (radio, tv, blogosphere) that will interest a publisher, agent, writer.  Or do your research and find a ghost, book doctor, or editor who will work with you to shape a proposal. Or buy a lottery ticket.

Can anyone step in?

56 Responses

  1. I had one of those moments. One sentence on not even my own blog: “I kept a secret for 28 years.” Beginning, end and middle. That is really the only interesting part anyway.

    Not to be terribly “non PC” but the only market for her book would be in Arkansas.

  2. LOL. Brilliant!!!!

  3. How do you get your story written? Well, either people want to write it for you when they hear about it, or they don’t.

    And if they don’t, then that means you have the kind of story that you’ll have to write yourself.

    And if you don’t want to write it yourself, then maybe it’s not the kind of story that needs to be written.

    Sometimes it really is as simple as that.

  4. I’ll ghost it for $25,000. (Okay, $15,000.)

    There are plenty of functional alternatives to great writing and great storytelling: schadenfreude, titillation, tapping into the zeitgeist. Giving readers a false sense of superiority or exclusivity or depth. The question is, what’s your goal?

    And aren’t some stories inherently interesting? Kathryn Harrison?

  5. “Can anyone step in?”

    Not me. I think you’ve got this one covered.

  6. I very recently had a good friend suggest that I write the story of her growing up years, and it nearly broke my heart because I think she was quite hurt that I wouldn’t want to write her story. But it’s HER story. How could I possibly do it justice? As Wendy says, if you don’t want to write it yourself… We are our own stories. Unless of course we are ghost-writers, but I can’t imagine asking/expecting someone else to give enough of a hoot to love our stories as much as we do. Once we tell it, though, and tell it WELL…then that’s another matter entirely.

    • My mom always says there’s a book in her. Since I started writing, this statement has been accompanied by a Look and a hopeful sort of mewling.

      She took a creative writing class at the Y (three classes, actually, before she dropped the course), and now the Look is more pointed than ever. It’s her most charming and pitiful Look (she’d bat an eyelash at anyone else): You should write it, Averil, you’re the Writer of the Family. I don’t know about punctuation and grammar, or where to start, or what to say, or how to end. It would be easy for you.

      She has no idea why my laughter sounds so hysterical.

      • Exactly! (And love the “hopeful sort of mewling” description…)

        In my case, thinking I was being helpful, I suggested the story would make a wonderful children’s book as opposed to a lengthy work of fiction which only garnered an even more crushed stare from my friend.

        We can’t win, Averil. Let’s lift those white flags and wave ’em.

      • Maybe I should write a children’s book about eating my pet rabbit for dinner. Or a cookbook. Broiling Your Bunny. That way I don’t have to get into the whole surviving satan part. 😉

    • A few years ago, I started using this standard response: I’m struggling to write the stories of my own life. I can’t imagine taking on the responsibility of someone else’s.

  7. An elderly gentleman showed up at a local RWA workshop hoping to find someone to write his life story. He clutched a thick folder of his handwritten notes chronicling his days as a WWII soldier and post-war adventures. His kindly demeanor charmed all of us – especially when he admitted paying a local professor $1500 but getting little more than an outline from the academician. I seem to attract these lost souls and he spoke to me for some time after the workshop. I’m now convinced he is probably an AWOL ex-Nazi trying to legitimize the web of lies that has protected him all these decades. A completely, creepy experience that no doubt could be a great book, but not from the perspective he would probably want.

  8. If she had said the story that she and her daughter had to tell was “interesting,” I can understand why most literary agents would give her the brush-off.

    But she didn’t.

    She said her story was “very interesting.”

    I suspect that Betsy is already re-thinking her initial response.

    • Glad you’re back! And you’re right–my curiosity would lead me to want to know more. But I don’t hear “very interesting story” 1,000 times a day.

      • Thanks, Mike.

        I think I have a strong suspicion of what this mother/daughter duo’s story is all about.

        I don’t want to ruin it for everyone, but, I will say that when this blockbuster is finally unleashed, the English-speaking readers of the world will all come face-to-face with something none of us had ever dared confront — our society’s stubborn and perniciously persistent ambivalence to the very interesting stuff that has happened to this mother and this daughter.

        Many readers will be brought to their knees. Some may find themselves bawling like babies at inopportune moments. A few will spontaneously lose all control of their bowels. But, all will be grateful for the opportunity to experience, albeit vicariously, the sights, sounds, and smells of life in a contemporary suburban American home as a typical mom and her sassy young daughter have some very interesting experiences.

  9. I had a friend who, every time she saw me, gave me nonstop story ideas. I should write this, I should write that. Not only was I not interested but her ideas were vignettes and not compelling ones at that. I eventually found myself avoiding her but once again she had the last word. She died, and so now she’s avoided me.

  10. When I was a struggling actor my mother gave me some very sound advice that I never took. She said, research those actors whose careers you admire, find out who their agents are, and then get them to represent you. I’d suggest the same path here. Locate the kinds of memoirs that are similar to yours or that you like, find their agents, and then approach them with your story idea. Forget diversity. Birds of a feather really do flock together.

    • Solid advice,MSB. I think it’s easy to forget that much of what we know isn’t so obvious from the outside. I think the woman would have appreciated your kindness.

  11. Movie first, then maybe a novelization.

  12. You said it, Betsy. I wouldn’t have been as polite as you were. Without knowing (or caring) about the story, I already feel sorry for the daughter.

  13. I’d advise her to take some writing classes and try writing it yourself. Even if it doesn’t get published, the writing of the story could be cathartic.

    Twenty years ago I started writing my story, it was awful. I even had the nerve to send it to agents. It was compelling enough that the agents sent me back personal letters (most a page or longer), but each one gently told me – a bit of writing instruction would help. I tabled the book until recently. Have now been writing a vastly improved version. Will send it out again, but not until I finish it and do a few re-writes to improve it more. Am also taking a writing class. :).

    I love your pragmatic way of approaching the questions you receive.

  14. I’ve only had this happen once, and it was awkward. For starters, my new friend was vastly overestimating my abilities, an estimation based on writing I had done for and about family. Although the few short quips she’d told me about her adventures were interesting, I had no idea how many of them she had, or how many I would find interesting. She and I both knew I didn’t have time for any more projects, and that knowing sort of saved the day.

  15. I think you nailed it in the 3rd sentence — great writing, great story telling. Nearly everyone has a story to tell, but a 250 page story? Magic, work, luck, talent. Not necessarily in that order. Throw in a little persistence, too. And a healthy dash of desire.

  16. “It’s all in the art, you get no credit for living.” (V.S. Pritchett said that, like a hundred years ago, and I think—especially for memoir writers—it’s even more relevant today.)

    I’ve never met anyone who didn’t think they had an interesting story to tell. Have you? It’s the human condition to think we’re all special snowflakes. And we’re so not. None of us. Not me. Not you. Not the Iraq vets, not the Holocaust survivors, not the woman in Utah who had her father’s baby. (Also, Tim O’Brien, Elie Wiesel and Robert Towne/Roman Polanski have already covered those topics brilliantly, but that’s another post altogether.)

    August, Kathryn Harrison’s story isn’t inherently interesting. Flick a cigarette butt in any direction at a 12-step meeting and you’ll hit someone with a narcissistic mommy, an abusive daddy, and a heart-wrenching tale of how they survived it. But Kathryn Harrison is an inherently interesting storyteller. Minus her writing ability, you’d only have schadenfreude or titillation. It’s not enough. All that’s worth is a six-figure therapy bill or a particularly salacious letter to Penthouse. (You pick.)

    • Good points and great quote. I do think though that everyone DOES have at least one really good story to tell, which is why it’s so important to hone one’s listening and empathy skills as a writer–inspiration is everywhere.

    • The story of the The Kiss isn’t, ‘damaged mommy, abusive daddy,’ it’s ‘I slept with my father as an adult.’ I hope you’d have to flick a lot of butts. Harrison can write, but a merely adequate execution of that story would’ve sold, because it’s inherently interesting. Nobody hears, ‘I fucked my dad a few times when I was twenty,’ and yawns.

      Adequacy is sufficient. That’s my motto.

      *I* get apoplectic over the idea that these women–‘we are not writers’–should take a few classes and write the book themselves. Because that’s fucking easy, writing. Instead of taking scrapbooking lessons again, they should switch to ‘Writing Your Life Out!’ at the community center, and in eight weeks they’ll know all the basics. This from writers. Jesus. If they want a story told, they can pay someone who’s already mastered the art of the adequate.

      • What’s “a merely adequate execution?” Examples, please. Yeah, nobody hears “I fucked my dad a few times when I was twenty” and yawns, but after 50 pages it’s a whole different ballgame.

      • Also, The Kiss is *totally* damaged mommy, abusive daddy. With fucking and anorexia.

      • By taking a class, they’ll get a better sense of what the writing process actually entails — meaning they’ll realize that it isn’t easy! But, maybe they *will* get enough of a sense of the basics that they can start to get some of their story down on paper to preserve for the grandkids, etc.

      • I wish we would cut this woman some slack! We may know a lot about writing and publishing, but not everyone does. Every time my computer repair guy or a workman at my house starts talking to me, it sounds like a foreign language. Makes me feel pretty stupid.

        Do we really need to react with such disdain to this mother’s query? As an independent editor, I come across would-be authors like this from time to time. Most need a reality check or Proposal Writing 101.

        I’ll think of this next time my computer guy doubles over laughing as I attempt to explain what I need help with.

      • Come on, Linda, you said it yourself: The computer guy laughs because you know jack shit about computers. My mechanic laughs when I try to explain the knockity-ping in my engine. Writers laugh when we hear from people who believe their life stories are unique, because we assess a story based on the way in which it’s written. There’s no malice in any of that. Everyone deserves the right to be smug about something.

      • Yes, but the point is he’s arrogant, and couldn’t do what I do for a living. We all have our spheres. No need to have contempt for those outside our own!

  17. My dad suggested once that he could give me ideas, I’d write books, and we’d split the (undoubtably enormous!!) proceeds 50-50. He was very hurt when I laughed, long and hard.

  18. I agree with Heather — she and her daughter can sign up for a class (maybe they’ll get lucky and the teacher will offer them a family discount)

  19. I think it all depends on the objective, if they wanted to get the story down for posterity, the way a family might say, have a portrait painted then go on ahead. Is it something that will interest readers? That’s another story.

    Better be ready to spend some cash though.

  20. It’s the people who don’t think their story deserves to be told–those people are more interesting.

    My grandmother told me about struggling to make Jell-o when she first moved to Canada and couldn’t yet read English, and it made me yearn to learn more about her and write it, to share. She would never indulge in such “nonsense” though. Shame.

  21. Can’t stand it when folks offer their lives up for dissection. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the invention and free fall of writing.

  22. I’m sure this is not stepping in, but on the flip side of this situation there are some people who are great story tellers with a relevant story who wouldn’t write even if they knew it might make them a few dollars. I recently worked with a guy, that job was shit, who was a barely graduated from high school thanks to sports programs dude who had a good story to tell and he had me captivated for about three hours all together in between working and sitting around listening. He was a natural story teller. His story was about drugs, the start of the housing bubble, the NRA and an NRA sponsored lawyer who took the credit for getting him set free from shooting his neighbor’s boyfriend with a shotgun in self-defense. The NRA had a deal with this guy that they would reimburse him for all costs if he was acquitted. The lawyer took off with the money, telling him they were even. Thing is, the only reason he got off is that he waved a jury and was honest even though the lawyer wanted him to lie about a few things. And it turns out he had just begun dating the woman whom he is about to marry and since then has had two children with. This story has all the ingredients. After telling me his story, which indeed changed his whole life, he told me if you’re a writer you should write my story. I told him no way, you need to write it yourself. I could be a typist, but that’s about it. Some people might call me a crazy asshole, but that’s really all for show and mixing up the known to see what shakes out, but I’m no slouch when it comes to a good story, and someone who knows how to tell one. The thing is, is this guy would probably punch you in the face if you tried to make him sit down in front of a computer and write. His grammar is great, his natural feel for building interest is great, but writing is for pussies. Sans this particular story, as I don’t want some shotgun pointed at my head, untold stories sounds like a good novel. Not a new idea, I’m sure. Something is happening everyday. No doubt.

    • I’m totally paranoid, so I think people that when it seems people write things that can only relate to what was written before, I must reply. This guy is provable. I researched. His court case is part of NRA rhetoric. The story here, is his story. I told him he should try to get the court transcripts, but I’m no lawyer, so I don’t know if they have him breaking down. I told him his story was stranger than fiction. He didn’t get the reference. He thought I was calling him a liar. Is that what you meant? Whomever you are? Virginia? If I’m totally off base, feel free to chorus crazy ass-hole!

  23. I naively wrote an article, many articles starring me and my family. I queried and queried. After many submissions, one editor offered hand wriiten advice. Dan stated, “thank you for considering ___ magazine for publication of your articles. This is one person’s opinion and only one- namely mine- I feel your articles are too personal and too autobiographical relative to you being an ‘unknown’ writer at this point in your career. When I read your manuscripts submitted to me, one of the first questions I ask is:”Who cares?” It went on for a few more sentences and he signed it ,cordially Dan. I will be forever grateful to Dan for his hand written rejection and the time he gave this new writer. I wrote him a sincere thank you. He made me reevaluate what I was writing and where I wanted to go in my career. With fiction, my stories are limited to my imagination and can take any direction I choose. My advice is to ask yourself,”who cares?” Granted we all, if we truly live life, have our stories, but in most cases ,”who cares?”

  24. I care too, about people and principles. Publishing is a business though. Selling product is the bottom line. When we begin to care more about each other and our stories, we won’t need so many margaritas. When money ceases to be the almighty in everything, we may all be able to tell our stories and be heard.

  25. Wouldn’t it be funny if the Mommie Dearest figured it out without our help and went on to have a bestseller? And then, when she’d be interviewed on some Oprah special, she’d say, “I’m not really a writer. In fact, when I tried to get advice from real writers, they laughed at me. But I was sure my story would be of interest to many women and their daughters, and so I just kept plugging away.” Oh, the chagrin.

    Keep us posted, Mommie Dearest, and don’t give up!

  26. Mommie Dearest please don’t give up. Tell your story. My blurb wasn’t meant to be a brick wall just a realization of what you will face. Be strong. Try your hand. Get something on paper. Look for that ghost writer, but be aware of the rejections you may face. There will be many rejections and many more people who stand on the sidelines ready to judge. May luck be with you and your skin be thick. Don’ t quit for then you have failed.

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