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Editor's advice 6 - It's my story


It's my story – why won't you publish it?

Maureen Kincaid SpellerMaureen Kincaid Speller a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian, is our book reviewer and also works for WritersServices as a freelance editor. is a long-serving WritersServices freelance editor. This new series, based on the advice she has given writers over the years, deals with the most common problems she has encountered in the manuscripts which cross her desk.

In the sixth article Maureen deals with non-fiction, focusing on memoir and travel writing.

Most of the manuscripts I am asked to comment on are novels. However, now and then a piece of non-fiction comes my way. Generally, it fits into one of two categories. Either, it’s an account of the writer’s travels in other countries (and sometimes about their attempts to settle in another country), or else it’s an autobiography. The story behind the writing of the manuscript is nearly always the same. The author has told their story to someone, who has said, ‘that’s really interesting, you should write that down and get it published’. The writer, all credit to him or her, has then done just that, and is now in search of an agent and/or a publisher. The manuscript has arrived on my desk, so I can advise on its chances of success.

Generally, I enjoy my work, but reading autobiographies and travel stories for assessment is the hardest thing I ever do. Why? Because I feel I’m not so much passing judgement on a piece of writing as on a person’s life and experiences. For the most part, I’m going to be saying ‘sorry, I don’t think you’ve got much chance of getting this published’, which is pretty much like saying ‘sorry, you’re not interesting enough’.

The problem is that as a writer you’re one person among many, and most people have no reason to be interested in you. No matter how many of your friends might be saying, ‘Wow, this is great stuff, you should get it published’, most people aren’t really going to want to know how you spent six months living in a hovel on the French-Spanish border, trying to turn it into a four-star restaurant and failed, or how you spent a year working in a very exotic location and found love in very unexpected circumstances.

‘But, but, but, you may be spluttering,’ as you point to the shelves in your local bookshop, ‘just look at all these books about how someone spent a year living in the next village over to the one where Peter Mayle lived, and the people were just like he said they were, or nothing like he said they were. Or how about this one where someone went round the world the same as Michael Palin did, but a year later … my book is just as good as these.’

And indeed it may well be, but whereas Peter Mayle and Michael Palin blazed a trail, and those who came immediately after them still had to struggle to keep to the path, we’re now in the era of figurative six-lane highways, and parodies of those books. Everyone’s doing it, so why do we need to hear about someone else doing it?

Most people know someone who has found love in unexpected circumstances, or someone else who has followed their dream, and either succeeded wildly or failed spectacularly. These days it’s a rare person who hasn’t travelled to an exotic location for a holiday, or bought a house somewhere in Europe. Everyone knows someone with a travel story to tell; they don’t have to read about complete strangers doing it any more.

Your friends are praising your stories by suggesting you write them down for other people, but the truth is, they like your stories because they are your friends, they know you, they can imagine you in the circumstances. For complete strangers, you’re just a person a bit like their friend X, who went off to such-and-such country for six months and came back with some much better stories. In the last fifteen years the bottom has well and truly fallen out of the travel-writing market. Unless you can find a really unusual angle, or can catch the publisher’s, and the public’s, fancy at just the right time, you’re doomed to spend years unsuccessfully peddling a story to people who just don’t want to read it.

If travel writing is problematic, autobiography is even more so. For the individual writer, his or her life is naturally the most important thing in the world. They want to share elements of it with others for all sorts of reasons. It may be that the writer has been caught up in an event with national significance, like a train crash, or a bomb blast, or an outbreak of war. Perhaps he or she has survived severe injury or illness. As a result of their experiences they want to offer hope or advice to others. Alternatively, a writer might want to preserve childhood memories, or talk about their encounters with famous people. Or they may simply want to record the progress of their lives. These are natural impulses, and I really do think it’s important that people want to record these things and leave accounts for their children, grandchildren, people they might never meet.

The problem arises in trying to get such accounts published. How to put this without in any way diminishing someone’s experience? Suppose you catch a very rare disease. There is a cure but a certain set of conditions must be met. Your situation catches the public imagination, the newspapers cover the topic, the cure is found, you recover miraculously, and you make headlines across the world. You announce you want to write a book about your experience, and publishers are beating a path to your door.

Now, suppose a celebrity catches the disease at the same time, also recovers miraculously, and you both announce you want to write a book … as there are only the two of you, you are both likely to get decent offers from publishers. But suppose there are twenty of you, forty, two hundred, several thousand … what happens then?

Your struggle, your experience is unique and precious to you, and rightly so, but it’s rarely unique in the world. And therein lies the problem. Friends and family may be urging you to write your story because they’ve never heard anything like it, but without some sort of hook – celebrity, making the headlines in the newspaper, or experiencing something really unusual – your chances of getting your account published through conventional channels is virtually nil.

It may be that a publisher will take a fancy to your account if it’s in some way quirky, but these days such trends are small and quickly worked out. I don’t, for example, think there is much more mileage in the‘miserable childhood’ memoir, and‘how I survived the [insert recent horrific event]’ accounts have a fairly short shelf-life anyway, and tend to be initiated by publishers, often using ghost-writers.

Stories about personal disaster are problematic– an account of a child’s unexpected death is more likely to attract attention if, for example, there is a court case connected, or if the writer is already well-known, or if the account is exceptionally well written. I have an acquaintance whose life was, in her view, irrevocably changed as a result of her being in a building when it was blown up many years ago. She is still determined to write her life story but the sad truth is, she emerged from the experience physically intact and the course her life has taken is, in many respects, not that remarkable. And if her manuscript were to ever land on my desk, that’s what I’m going to have to say.

Travel stories and autobiography are unlikely to be taken up by a commercial publisher, however well written. However, most people telling travellers’ tales or the story of their life are driven as much by a desire to share their experiences as to make money so let’s think laterally about this. You don’t have to waste years touting a manuscript around the publishing houses and meeting endless rejection. It’s not a thing I say that often, but this is precisely the time to think about self-publishing. These days the possibilities are almost endless, if you accept that you may well have a small but genuinely interested audience but that you need to find it rather than wait for it to come to you.

For example, an acquaintance of mine put down his memories of his childhood in a glossy booklet which he sells or gives away to interested parties. Of course, it helps that one of his siblings is an extremely famous writer, but even that wouldn’t be enough for a mainstream publisher to take up this genuinely charming account of a rural childhood. It’s very easy, these days, to produce a good-quality, limited-run paperback, at a surprisingly reasonable price. You probably won’t get rich, but you’ll have a book to sell. And for those who want to read about X’s childhood, Y has given them a very valuable little account.

Alternatively, why not put up your stories on a website or blog? You can share them with your friends and family, add a tip box and some advertising to make a little bit of money to support the site, and there’s half a chance you’ll make some new friends as a result.

If you want to share very particular life experiences, the above also applies, on top of which it’s almost certain there are support groups you can get in touch with, who may be very willing to advertise your book or website, which could lead you to whole new communities of like-minded people.

And while I wouldn’t want to get your hopes up too much, there have been cases where self-published books have been taken up by publishers later, and where blogs have been turned into books. However, the point is that for non-fiction writers there are more ways of getting‘published’ than you might suppose, and the obvious one is not always the most appropriate.

An Editor's Advice 1 on Dialogue
An Editor's Advice 2 on doing further drafts
An Editor's Advice 3 on genre writing
An Editor's Advice 4 on planning
An Editor's Advice 5 on points of view
An Editor's Advice 6 on autobiography and travel
An Editor's Advice 7 on manuscript presentation

See also Maureen's many reviews of writing books in our Resources section.

Maureen Kincaid Speller is a reviewer, writer, editor and former librarian.

© Maureen Kincaid Speller 2007