Howdy, friends! Today’s post is part II about how I wrote and got a contract for the book I’ll publish next year, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright (2016). For part I of this series, “Crossing Over: What is my book about?” click here. When last I left you, I had just arrived at the Huntington and presented a draft of my introduction to a terrific seminar that meets there, Past Tense, which focuses on the craft of writing history and the choices historians make. The people there seemed to like the intro and expressed enthusiasm for the project overall.
After the Past Tense seminar last autumn, I contacted the agent I had been in touch with more than six years earlier, and sent him the first four chapters and my introduction. He replied with admirable alacrity–within a week, said that the four chapters were “very interesting” and “very impressive,” but he utterly disliked my introduction, which was not just an introduction to Esther Wheelwright, but also a short essay on the politics of early American historical biography and our preference as both writers and readers to read the same damn so-called “Founding Father” biographies over and over again. (Longtime readers here will recognize this complaint!)
The agent informed me that my introduction was out-of-date and the feminist analysis was tedious and “hectoring,” and said that he wasn’t interested in representing me. I talked to some of my friends about this, and they bolstered my sense that I should stick to my guns. I didn’t write this book just to tell a fascinating story about a little girl and a woman (although I do that!)–I wrote it so that I could make a larger point about U.S. American history, and whose stories get told and whose stories get left out.
In the course of our correspondence, I told the agent that I had already been in touch with Yale and with another prestigious university press that also publishes crossover titles (through those breakfast and lunch invitations). He said that in that case he wouldn’t have done me any good, because those were the editors he had thought of selling this book to anyway. (In other words, he wasn’t going to take it to Knopf or Penguin even if he loved the intro.) He encouraged me to go it alone, because “I’d just be taking money out of your pocket.” All in all, I liked this guy–I’m sorry he didn’t like my “hectoring” feminism, but he was straight with me, and it’s business, right? I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea–people either really like me (the majority) or dislike me intensely (poor, deluded souls!) The agent had given me a speedy evaluation and lots of free advice, so I have no complaints.
After this years-long adventure in trial-and-error, with an emphasis on the errors, I went with Yale for the same reasons I went with the University of Pennsylvania Press for my first book: they publish really nice-looking books and the editor was enthusiastic about my vision for this project from the beginning. It’s kind of interesting to learn that the advice I’d been giving junior scholars turned out to be pretty good: trust your gut, and dance with the one that brung ya. The tidy advance certainly didn’t hurt, and it was especially sweet knowing that I didn’t have to share it with an agent! I didn’t ask about publishing it as a crossover title–that was something the editor proposed on his own because of my effort to write a book that told a story and made its arguments implicitly rather than explicitly.
So what can you learn from one person’s highly individual experience? I dunno. Here’s what I learned:
- Network, network, network. The more different places you present your work, the more different meetings you go to, the more people you correspond with and help out, the more manuscripts you review for presses and journals, the more people you know through social media like Facebook, blogs, and Twitter–well, the better connected you are. Be a productive part of your professional ecosystem, and that ecosystem will likely nurture and feed you as well. I am entirely indebted to a friend who worked with my editor at Yale for her first book, and who passed my name along to him, which led to that breakfast invitation at the Organization of American Historians meeting last year.
- Write with the readers you want in mind. If you want a general readership to find and appreciate your book, write it with them in mind. (This was the subject of Liz Covart’s post from last week that got me rolling on this whole journey-to-publication saga.) I thought a lot about my mother’s book club and what might interest them about Esther’s story, as they’ve read a number of historical novels as well as women’s memoirs, including the memoir of a nun who left her religious order in the 1960s. I also thought about the kinds of questions that children might have about children in the past, as half the book focuses on Esther’s life up to age fifteen or so. With that in mind, find your natural style and go with it. Think about your speaking voice and how the book would sound if someone read it out loud–that trick surely helps me avoid overly-long sentences with tortured syntax, a fault I find in a great deal of academic writing. I also learned a great deal about writing for a non-specialist audience while writing this blog–so finding a neutral space in which to play helps too–journaling works for some people, but I liked figuring this out in public (with your help! Believe me, my blog readers will be thanked in my acknowledgements.)
Listen to critics, but stick to your guns. When I tell non-historians what I’m writing about, most of them say, “that sounds really interesting. I love historical fiction!” They’re even more intrigued when I tell them I’m writing non-fiction. I’ve known all along that I’ve got a story to tell that will interest readers beyond the academy. I’ve also been the recipient of a lot of generous support and helpful criticism from my professional colleagues and students, some of which has helped me from making foolish errors (!) and all of which has really helped me write a better book. But I’ve also had my critics. I’ve been told that I’m “daft” for trying to write this book; and as I said above, I’ve been told that my feminist introduction is “hectoring.” Some of these naysayers really knocked me off my game and I let them eat into my brain, which was stupid considering all the enthusiasm that the vast majority of others had shown. If you know what’s important about the book you’re writing, listen to the critics who want to help you write the book you want to write, not the book they want you to write, or the book they wished they had written. As for the naysayers: everyone’s a critic, and unless you aspire to write the world’s blandest book, you’ll hear from at least a few.
So, that’s it. I should probably sign off on posting for a few days and get back to my revisions, which are due in about six weeks if I want this book to appear in October 2016! But I’ll surely be checking in through the day for comments on this post, yesterday’s post, and any other discussions happening on-blog, if anyone wants to pick up the other end of this rope.
Happy trails, and good luck with whatever writing is on your to-do list this summer. We’re all in this together!