“To you your father should be as a god.” (1.1.47 A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare)
Today is Father’s Day and there will be a constant stream of posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, videos on YouTube, and even dance routines on TicTok, all celebrating the great dads of the world.
This post is for those whose dads were less than stellar.
It’s a celebration of sorts to show that even though our fathers fell far short of the claims that others will be making throughout the day–as their hero, loving Pop, first love, patient dad, funny patriarch, wise sage, best father ever–we can honor and pay tribute to ourselves for having grown up without a father’s warm and protective embrace. It’s made us strong and resilient and fearless. So for that, I say thank you, Dad.
This week, more than just my celebratory martini was “shaken, not stirred.” While my desire has been to share my book journey toward publishing with as much transparency as possible–including detailing and revealing every success or failure–the roller coaster of events that played out almost daily this past week gave me pause for thought. Last Friday evening, after weeks of revisions, I submitted my proposal to my agent. Celebrating with my cocktail of choice, I settled back to enjoy my weekend and the satisfaction of a job well done. Or so I thought.
The death knell sounded on Sunday afternoon when I received an email from my agent, who three months ago, before the world changed, was broadcasting how great my story was and how it was not only going be bought by publishers but also bought as a film or series to one of the networks. Funny how a little pandemic can change everything.
In less than 30 seconds, it all vanished when I read the words, “This new market condition forces me to withdraw from representing you . . . ” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to scream or cry, so I did both . . . at the same time. It was not a pretty picture.
Now, I could continue this thread by reporting I fell into a pool of despair, railing against the world, and vowing never to write again, but who wants to read about that, especially in today’s world where there are far more pressing and important issues.
Instead, it was time to put on my big-girl pants and figure out my next step.
Taking my now ex-agent up on his offer to help me (short of representation!), I set up a call for the next day. My goal was twofold: To find out why my proposal failed to light the necessary fire my agent said he needed in order to pitch my book and to have him recommend an editor for hire.
“I do have someone in mind, but she’s expensive,” he said. When he told me how much, I wondered if I could scrape up enough cash among the three credit cards that weren’t maxed out. “She’ll bring your proposal up to the standard you need to compete with established, professional authors like Tara Westover.”
“Done,” I replied. Considering I’d been admonished for originally pitching my book as Educated on a boat, unaware the publishing world considered Westover’s memoir as a tour de force literary masterpiece, it seemed like a tall order to fill. Either that or this editor had super powers.
“I’ll have to give her your proposal and see if she’ll even work with you,” he added. Nothing like kicking you when you’re down, I thought. Thank god I spent thirty years as a model and actor, toughening up with industry clients who were as mean as snakes.
“I really appreciate you doing this for me,” I said and added, “because whatever happens, I’m determined to get my book published.”
“If she decides to take you on and your final proposal gets the punch-up it needs, I’ll pitch the book in September.”
Say what??? Will wonders never cease! Guess he didn’t tear up my contract, after all. One more one-eighty along my journey.
Yesterday, after signing a work-for-hire contract to protect my intellectual property, I sent off my check, plunging me further in debt, but in turn landing me a real live editor.
Tonight, I’m having another martini, but this time, stirred.
Yeah, that’s me smiling. Happy that I wrote my book. Happy that I signed with a great agent. But completely oblivious to the work ahead. “I’m gonna sell your book on your proposal.” MY WHAT? I thought that was what you wrote BEFORE you wrote your book! Well, that’s true. I happened to do it backwards. So, in case you are thinking of sitting down and finally writing the story of your life, save yourself a lot of grief by writing a proposal first. All memoirs fall into the non-fiction category and all non-fiction is sold using a proposal. (This, btw, pertains to first-time authors and not seasoned ones who’ve proven the salability of their craft). By doing this, you will find out whether there is any interest in what you plan to write about before giving up a few years of your life staring at a computer screen, pecking at the keyboard with your permanently curled carpal-tunnel fingers.
I liken a proposal to a long, extended pitch, where you try as hard as you can to persuade publishers your book is so fabulous, unique, and on trend that they willingly hand over as much moolah as possible–in some cases engaging in frenzied bidding wars–in exchange for exclusive rights to your book. Sounds doable? Here’s the rub. They keep a death grip on their cash until they’re absolutely convinced that what you’ve written will not only give them their initial investment back but plenty more. They are in the money-making business. It’s your job to convey and convince them that your book is publish-worthy and that’s by writing the perfect proposal–distilling the gist of your story in a few paragraphs, who will buy it, how you’ll market it, comparing and contrasting similar books that have been critically and financially successful, the size and reach of your social media, why you want to write this particular story (or in my case, why I wrote this story) and your qualifications. And finally, a detailed outline of each proposed chapter. In other words, as involved as a grad paper but way more compelling. In show biz terms, your opening line better have pizzazz.
“Here’s a list of books I’m suggesting you read for your comps,” my agent said. “Got a pen and paper, ’cause I need you to write down exactly how I want you to write the proposal.” Comps, if you’re not familiar with the vernacular, are books published within the past three to five years that have sold well (made money for the publishers), fall within your genre, and offer a similar theme or story line. Not too similar, mind you, because then who’d want to buy or read the same book? But it has to be similar enough for the money-people in publishing to say, “Yeah, that will sell, cause it’s just like such and such that sold a million copies, except that now the story takes place on a submarine, or a ranch, or an iceberg.” You get the point. The same but not the same.
As soon as I hung up with my agent, I ordered my list of books from Amazon Prime and even found a few more that I thought I might be able to use. He also recommended I purchase Michael Larsen’s classic, How to Write a Book Proposal. I ordered both 4th and 5th editions. The next afternoon my books arrived. The day after, Covid-19 dominated the news. The day after that, I caught what I hoped was just a nasty bug from my teenaged daughter. Whatever it was, I was down for the count.
View from writers workshop in St. Augustine, Florida
While the view outside was serene, the ten writers, including myself, were getting a good thrashing inside by our mentor, who, after listening intently to our unrehearsed pitches, proceeded to eviscerate our work. “That’s already been done. Change the ending. You need a dead body on the first page. Decide your genre. Where’s your voice?” Initially relieved that the woman on the opposite side of the room had volunteered to be the first casualty, thus leaving me at number nine, I quickly realized after listening to each writer’s pitch, that what I’d imagined as my story’s pitch was not a pitch at all. As the writers took their turns, I scribbled in my notebook, hoping by the time I was called upon, I’d come up with something. Anything.
My turn. Deep breath. “I am pitching my memoir titled….”
“Too long. Story begins in the middle. Get rid of the rest. Cut the ending.” BUT, BUT, BUT . . . I could feel myself doing exactly what I’d promised I wouldn’t. I was resisting, pushing back, and feeling defensive. I felt ten years old again and wishing I could lob a spitball at the hateful teacher.
Relax. You didn’t put all that money on your credit card not to listen, I told myself. Take it in. If you feel she’s full of shit after this is all over, then fine. But for the next four days, just listen and learn. At the end of the day, I learned I was not alone as I see-sawed between revenge and despair. Without exception, everyone was dismayed over their individual critiques. I didn’t know about anyone else, but I was ordering a big, fat martini before dinner.
Three days fly by. Bonding. Laughing. Working hard. Perfecting the original three-page pitch down to fifty words. The moment is here. We have exactly ten minutes on the phone to pitch to a big-time editor of a big-time New York publishing house. Our mentor gives us our final instructions. “Say your pitch, shut up, and let her speak.” I mouth it as I wait in line, adopting it as my new mantra, sayyourpitch,shutyourmouth, sayyourpitch,shutyourmouth, sayyourpitch,shutyourmouth.
Only the editor doesn’t follow the rules. She asks me question after question. I answer again and again. I need to shut up but I can’t. Ten minutes is over. The door bursts open and my mentor barks, “Times up!” I have to cut this big-time editor off mid-sentence. I stumble from the room, shell shocked. It did not go well.
I have to pull myself together because I have to pitch again. This time, it’s a big-time literary agent who’s flown in from New York for the day. He’s sitting outside on the deck, interviewing one of the writers. Two people are waiting in front of me. That gives me thirty minutes to figure out what went wrong with my first interview and not repeat it with this guy.
I pace around the living room, look out the window, and finally take a walk out on the boardwalk to the ocean. I stare at the waves. Fuck it. I can’t figure out what to do. I’m too old to try and second guess people. I’ll just be who I am. It can’t be any worse than what just happened on the phone call with the editor. At least I’ll be able to look him in the eye.
I introduce myself and shake his hand (this is pre Covid-19). He’s open and friendly. I pitch my story. He nods his head and smiles. We talk about New York, where I lived for most of my life before I exchanged it for a life of sand and sun. He asks, “I’m curious, how old are you?” In the past, I would have bristled over such a question, but now, writing this story has freed me. I have nothing to hide. I’ve written a memoir that is set in the sixties. Do the math, I tell him. He responds with another question. “What took you so long?’ Have you got a year, I answer. After a few minutes, he offers me representation. I accept. His specialty is book-to-film adaptation. A perfect fit for my story.