Monday, February 7, 2011

On platforms and prisons

Since I'm writing a memoir, I try to keep up on memoirs.

Lately, I've been reading Ari Steinberg's recently released Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian . A really good read. Funny, moving, sharply observed, energetic, and ripe for a TV spinoff.

I recommend it.

I was put on to the book by a friend. This same source told me that a TV deal is brewing (it's also on Steinberg's Facebook page). Which seems a natural, since it's basically a fish-out-of-water scenario.

In brief: A recent Harvard grad from an Orthodox Jewish family ends up taking a job as librarian and English teacher in a Boston-area prison.  A true story.

It's full of characters with kooky nicknames and outsized personalities. Inmates and prison guards alike. A mix of races and types. Pimp jokes galore! And lots of wry observations about how life on the inside often resembles life on the outside, and vice versa. Except when it doesn't.

Here's the thing: It's Steinberg's first book. Before publication, he had a few clips in the Boston Globe, apparently. That's about it. No "platform," as far as I can tell. That is, no proven audience. No following. No guaranteed sales.

Once he got the book deal, however, his byline began appearing on the DailyBeast, in The New York Times Sunday Magazine, and elsewhere.

So the question on my (jealous?) mind is, how did this guy get a book deal when I can't?

In fairness, this book IS well written. I concede that it may be a much easier read than mine. Yet it also seems, well, fairly unimportant … an amusing, occasionally thought-provoking entertainment … a diversion. To me, it's not especially deep. It's a small story. Unusual, to be sure, and offbeat, but ultimately pretty safe territory.

When it comes to the vagaries of publishing and personal tastes, most people would just shrug. Still, I wonder.

Despite this book's breezy sheen, it's a memoir, not a novel. Though less gritty, it reminds me a little of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, a book I liked, actually. As you might recall, that's the one that caused a controversy when it was revealed the author made up most of the supposedly true tale.

I'm not saying Running the Books is a work of fiction disguised as a memoir--though I do notice it's the same publisher as Pieces', Doubleday's Nan Talese imprint.  By the way, when I contacted the house about my memoir-in-progress a while back, I was politely told mine "would not be a good fit for our list. We publish only literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, and your memoir sounds much too mainstream…"

These things always baffle me. Doesn't "mainstream" mean that it suits a lot of people, i.e., readers? And isn't that what having a "platform" is supposed to mean, too--that you'll have lots of readers?

Speaking of readers, you should know that I've had about 50 pre-orders for my unfinished book. Which is great! Thank you, all!

But as ever, we need more to put this over. A lot more.

Maybe it's true that there's no pleasing me!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Part 40 of "Miracle Boy": Join the crusade!

Over the past few days, I've been Twittering (tweeting?) excerpts from favorite rejection letters of the past.


Gosh, I'm glad you asked!

I do this not to elicit pity. Let's make that clear from the get-go.

Rather, I'm posting the rejects because…

1) I think they're funny, with their pretentious self-importance, the way they struggle to say "no" ever so humbly and graciously (they never "reject", they "pass");

2) they illustrate the overarching, vexing conundrum--namely, What the hell do these publishing gatekeepers want anyway? Or: Why is it so hard to get my book published?

I'm not alone in this.  I know many, many struggling writers share a similar pain.

Some of whom no doubt suck. But many of whom are worthy.

I contend that publishers and agents often don't really know what they're talking about. To be fair, they're in a tough spot. Publishing is a profession both noble and storied. In that, it's a lot like the dinosaurs. Grand, but probably on the way out.

Look, many of these people want to be instrumental in putting great works out there but feel constrained by the bottom line. So they contort themselves in amusing ways trying to justify their existence.

There is a paucity of and desperate need for risk-taking. Or something like that.

Let's face it: You've read excerpts from my memoir (a new piece of which follows). My potential market would seem pretty vast: NPR is reportedly broadcast on 900 U.S. radio stations, transmitted to more than 150 other countries via satellite, and heard by countless more over the Internet; Americans with disabilities number some 50 million, not to mention their families and the professionals who serve them (one group, Friends of Spinal Muscular Atrophy, boasts 70,000 members!); the Harvard community is pretty sizable; and even readers of the financial magazines to which I contribute should figure into the mix.

So again I ask, What more do these people want?

Speaking of more, I'll post more rejection notes soon. Meanwhile, here is more MIRACLE BOY.
When time comes for me to take the S.A.T., Mother—as I've taken to calling her, to show my maturity—gets me tutored. She knows I haven't had Alec's academic training. Mom has become happier, except for the weekends of chemo- and radiation-induced nausea, during which she hides herself in her bedroom. She's become an item with a man named Bob, another writer and Harvard grad, like Dad. She's also working full-time at a small publishing house. Though she complains that it doesn't pay much, she insists she enjoys the camaraderie and intellectual stimulation. She's even trying to write her own book about having cancer. She says when it's published she'll take us to Europe.

For her, seeing me grow up and managing a degree of independence is a relief and a joy, she says. As if she doesn't want to leave this world worrying about me.

She doesn't even get mad when I tell her I was smoking with friends in the Park. I think she's just glad I have friends, have enough autonomy to be a little naughty. Fitting in has always been important to her. Being well socialized. Maybe it's a case of boys will be boys. But I knew she would feel that way, which is why I told her. I was almost showing off, like smoking with the guys was a badge of acceptance I had achieved.

It's very nice that Mother and I now have this kind of understanding and honesty between us. I'm glad I didn't "divorce" her and move to Stamford. The shrink knew what he was talking about!

When I at last take the S.A.T., Mother makes sure a proctor goes over my answer bubbles. I'm able to handle a regular pencil (or lightweight pen) and paper pretty well, but she's worried I don't press hard enough to make my answers register.

Soon all such standardized tests will be required to make accommodations like that for students like me. But at the time, we have to take accommodations into our own hands.

That's all for now! I need to write more. I have outlined the rest of the story, but I'll spare you that. Leave some suspense. From now on, let's talk about what we need to do to get this thing published. Really published. Old-school-style.

Hope you'll keep riding with me...