Nearly every genealogist talks about collecting her research and writing a family history book – someday. Make this October the month that you actually do it. I know a lot of you are saying, “I’d like to do that, but I’m not finished with my research.” I understand. But you never will be finished. Research is a lifetime pursuit. Family historians should all pin a comment by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman to their wall or better yet use it as a screen saver. Tuchman said, “The most important thing about research is to know when to stop. How does one recognize the moment? …One must stop before one is finished; otherwise, one will never stop and never finish.” So get started with your book! Let’s look at a simple process to plan and organize your family history.
If you’re not a full time writer, you have probably found that life often gets in the way of finding time to work on your book. Recently a client dropped us a note: I've been working on a chapter here and there as much as time allows, but in the process of selling my home, a lot of my research materials were minimally packed. I am trying to find a way to make a writing schedule even if it's short. Any thoughts? We understand. We have some ideas on ways to make productive use of limited writing time.
It’s not a surprise when anyone points out that we live in “the age of memoirs.” The number of memoirs published increased 400% in four years leading Ben Yagoda in his book Memoir: A History to observe that, “Memoir has become the central form of the culture…” The current list of Hard Cover Bestsellers includes three memoirs among the top 15 titles. Chery Strayed’s Wild, an account of the author’s transformational 1,000 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail is #4; Olympic soccer team goalkeeper Hope Solo’s book Solo is #12; and Kati Marton recalls her marriages to Peter Jennings and Richard Holbrooke in Paris: A Love Story which is #14. 9 out of the top 25 e-books are memoirs. But what is interesting is that our fascination with memoirs is less recent than we often think.
“Should self-publishing be hyphenated?” I asked. It seemed like a simple question, triggered by a desire to be consistent in the way we handle a word we use a lot here at Stories To Tell. But the discussion it provoked was rather protracted and, I think, an important illustration of something to which writers should pay more attention – consistency of style. We discussed what you see in common usage. Many pieces of published writing have hyphens. But what seems an equal number don’t and that number seems to be growing. We talked about grammar. If you use the word as a verb without a hyphen you are saying to self. That doesn’t make sense. So you should use a hyphen to self-publish to make it grammatically correct. But as an adjective, as used in self published book, would the same thing be true? Of course your grammar checker in Word says it’s not correct. But, I hope everyone knows that’s not always a guarantee of correctness. Finally, we did what we should have done in the first place, we checked the Chicago Manual of Style.
Have you heard good stories, or bad, about self-publishing? Some say it’s the greatest opportunity for writers since Guttenberg. Others issue dire warnings about self-publishing companies that take advantage of authors. Which is true? Both. So we’re here to straighten it out and explain how to take advantage of this new technology, so you don’t get ripped off. Right now there is a hot debate raging about an article in The Atlantic by Peter Osnos, and former publisher at Random House. He laments that Penguin, a traditional publisher, bought the self-publishing giant Author Solutions. Armed with statistics that the “overwhelming majority” of self-published books don’t make money, he calls self-publishing’s success a “cruel” paradox. Sometimes the experts just don’t get it. Old-school publishers like Osnos only want to publish books that sell millions of copies; they write off their lesser titles as “failures”. Yet to authors, selling a limited run isn’t always a failure; that may be their dream come true. A quarter of a million authors self-published books in 2011, for reasons including, but not limited to, making money.
You have finished the draft of your book. Congratulations! You are ready to have an editor look at it to make sure there are no egregious errors in grammar or usage and to make sure the commas are in the right places. Hold on! Not so fast. You’re missing a critical step in the creation of a successful book: developmental editing. Think of the developmental edit as a big picture look at your manuscript, a macro edit, if you will. Its purpose is to answer a simple question: Is the manuscript done? The final chapter is written, but are you done? Developmental editing analyzes the clarity, cohesiveness, and effectiveness of your manuscript, with the assumption that you’ll go back to work to improve it. (After that, you’ll really be finished.) You should be open to adding, cutting, changing or moving elements of your manuscript based on what you learn from the feedback you get from both your early readers and then the advice of a more professional editor.
I remember high school chemistry (not all that fondly, I must admit.) where maintaining an up to date lab journal seemed the whole point of the class. I didn’t get it then, the journal seemed an onerous waste of time. But, now I do. The journal was supposed to produce some thinking about the experiments we were performing. As the great physicist, Max Planck explained, “An experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature's answer.” A writer often confronts questions about the nature of the world she is creating in a book. As you work on a particular piece of writing you might want to keep your own Lab Journal.
Wells might have gone on to advise writers of both fiction and nonfiction that exposition and narrative summary are neither. If you want to tell a compelling story you need to do it with dramatic scenes. If your scene is going to provide both intense action and high emotion the outcome of the situation your scene portrays must alter the plans, hopes or dreams of one of your major characters. To create the kind of high intensity scenes that will draw your reader into the story you need to begin, as Wells suggests, with conflict. Your character must be pursuing some specific purpose and be confronted with challenges that present obstacles that may seem, at least in the short run, insurmountable.( Let’s face it, if your character achieved her goal in every scene, you wouldn’t have a very long, or interesting story.)
Are there working men and women in your family tree or in the book you are working on? In honor of Labor Day 2012, let’s look at a couple of excellent places to find out what the experiences of the people you are writing about might have been like. Both offer the kind of social history to add interest and detail to bring family history and historical fiction or nonfiction to life.
Could you live without your public library? I couldn’t. Nancy and I visit the Redding Branch of the Shasta Public Libraries once or twice a week. We take out seven or eight books, novels of all kinds from literary to decidedly not, how-to books for household projects (We’re currently putting a pond in our backyard.), and books for research related to our business. We have used the library community room to teach classes on a variety of subjects related to creating books. We check out books on CDs for road trips. Our library has a large family history/genealogy/local history section complete with volunteers to help researchers. All for free! (I know my taxes help pay for it.) I even wrote a post on Why I Celebrate National Library Week last year. However, all is not well with our libraries. They are quietly becoming casualties of the recession.
For a self publishing author it’s all about finding an audience for your book. So when you read about the authors who do break through with big sales figures for self published e-books like: Darcie Chan with 400,000 sales of her novel, The Mill River Recluse Michael Prescott whose thrillers earned $300,000 in 2011 Amanda Hocking self published e-book sales of paranormal romances led to a $2,000,000 deal with St. Martin’s Press John Locke who has sold well over a million e-book downloads of his action adventure and westerns the average author asks what they are doing to achieve such success. Locke has written an e-book How I Sold 1 Million ebooks in 5 Months to describe his marketing system which he says is “100% workable” for anyone seeking to sell e-books.
Stories are “…one of the primary sculpting forces of individuals and societies,” says Jonathan Gottschall in his new book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. What gives stories their power lies below the surface. There is the surface level involving what the characters do and say as the events of the story’s plot unfolds. But the deeper thematic level that poses the question, “So what?” explores the insights about life and the human condition a reader may draw from what’s happening on the surface. Whether your book is fiction or nonfiction, developing your its theme is at least as important as planning its storyline. In fiction you may create events to demonstrate a particular lesson to be learned or truth to be understood. Genre fiction often dictates the book’s theme. A mystery must present the quest for justice. A romance must explore the search for true love. But what elevates a book to a more level is the nature of the themes their authors choose to explore.
In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews sings, “Let’s start at the very beginning. A very good place to start.” That may be good advice for the Von Trapp Family children, but a writer might want to think twice about it. Many writers tell stories in a perfectly chronological sequence. This happened. Then that happened. Then the next thing happened. This method of telling a story is called linear narrative. Events are presented in the exact sequence in which they occurred. That’s a very effective way to tell some stories. Sometimes, however, the drama of a story can be heightened by breaking out of strict chronology and employing a nonlinear narrative. I Am Born might have been a fine title for the opening chapter of Dickens’ David Copperfield, but few contemporary readers of fiction or nonfiction will cut an author the slack to begin a book that way. Your book must engage its reader in the first page or two. To do that you need to begin with a dramatic scene. That may mean starting your story at its chronological end or in the middle to begin on the high note you are seeking.
As we sat around a campfire in the Trinity Alps on the other side of the Central Valley from the worst of the wild fires, Nancy’s nephew, who just graduated from high school mentioned that he had written his senior thesis on The Hero’s Journey. He enthusiastically took us through the great mythologist Joseph Campbell’s description of the universal elements of heroism in his classic, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. As Cam spoke, I wished some of the authors with whom we work were listening.
I am the lead editor of Stories To Tell Books and a specialist in memoirs and family histories. We also handle fiction and nonfiction, but in memoir and family history a style has arisen called "creative nonfiction" for books grounded in fact and presented using the tools of literature. These are special books, not only because of the subject matter, but because of the unique way they are designed - usually with photos, and in some family histories, a genealogist may want to include endnotes, charts, appendixes and an index. An illustrated book is a whole different project than text-only. As a book editor and designer, I enjoy producing illustrated books because they are so interesting to look at as well as to read.