Say Yes to All That: Guest post by Kathleen Tarr

(Originally published June 25, 2009, republished December 20, 2012)
I’m loving this! Another Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference post fresh from my email inbox, with some well-condensed writing and publishing advice that all of us should (must) heed. Thanks to Kathleen Tarr, who is the Program Coordinator for the Low-Residency MFA Program at UAA.

The first time I tried to write a book proposal for my narrative nonfiction project—a memoir—I agonized through the writing of it for five long months. I had just finished grad school and had my MFA manuscript in-hand, but no book proposal. This was the requisite next step. To draft a book proposal. To write the perfect Overview and Marketing Section, to really understand and be able to communicate why my book needed to be published, and what were its central, driving questions, and why I, the emerging, no-name writer from the hinterlands of moose country, was the absolutely right—no, the inevitable—person to write this book.

I knew I had to come up with the Synopsis of all Synopses, and several highly-compelling and polished sample chapters that would make any literary agent drop their grande mocha on their lap, or miss their subway stop to the Upper West Side, while their eyes stayed glued to its pages.

The proposal would have to be enthralling and engaging, so a publisher would immediately recognize the book’s significance, its commercial potential, and the fact that its famous-for-nothing memoirist had an identifiable platform.

That was back in summer of 2005 when I thought I knew what I was doing.

I’m thinking about all this now because I attended Sarah Jane Freymann’s publishing talk, “Say Yes,” at the June 2009 Kachemak Bay Writer’s Conference.

Freymann, a NYC literary agent since 1974, represents such authors as Linda Hogan, Dick Russell, and Sy Montgomery. She was delighted to be making her first trip to Alaska. And when she spoke to a jam-packed room of writers, she made a lot of sense. Especially to me.

As many agents often put it, Freymann wants to fall in love with a story. In addition, she’s looking for authenticity, “an authenticity that makes me feel as if a book had to be written, and not just because an author would love to be published.”

But don’t be “too cool for school,” Freymann advised. Don’t get lost in your own writing, your own desires to write like an angel, or to challenge the genre, to be experimental or convoluted. In short, don’t fall too much in love with the sound of your own voice.

Her voice, however, kept us all spellbound, replete as it was with all the British overtones, pitch-perfect in her enunciation, as when she said:

“Keep it simple. And then transcend the simplistic.”

The writing has to be good enough, not a Nobel Prize winning literary tour de force. “You need good enough writing with a great story. This is far better than exquisite writing which doesn’t go anywhere.” By way of a commercially successful example, she mentioned the un-literary, but gripping, Twilight series, of which I confess I have not read a twitter.

The tougher times get, the more we need stories which is one of the reasons this past Broadway season was such a smashing financial success.

Back to the idea of the world needing great stories. Don’t be threatened by the new media, she added. “Tell the story wonderfully, and the media format won’t matter.”

And Freymann cautioned us to remember: “The writer’s journal is not what people want to read and pay for. Your journal is grist for the mill, but it’s not the book. If your work is not fully coming together, and it’s not yet right, and some trusted readers have told you so, then believe it’s probably true. Remember the Buddhist saying, ‘If three people tell you you’re drunk, then sit down.’”

Which brings me back to the bloody hard work of writing the bloody challenging book proposal, the one I eventually threw out.

I struggled for five painful months not because book proposals are so damn hard to write, but because the books that go with them are. Why was I so frustrated? Because I didn’t really have The Book, though I suffered all the delusions and sincerely thought I did. And if you don’t really have The Book, how can you possibly put together an awe-inspiring book proposal? You can’t be in a hurry, and it will be too difficult of a process if you don’t have a clear enough vision of the book.

In early 2006, for the first and only time, I showed some of my work to a literary agent. Coincidentally, that person was Sarah Jane Freymann.

I found her through the recommendation of another writer. She responded positively to my query letter, and asked for more, but called to say she would have to pass in taking me on as a client, though she gave me some excellent advice and said she’d keep the door open. The problem wasn’t with the writing, but that the book lacked a larger and more focused story. “It’s a rich mix, but it never settled comfortably somewhere,” she said.

From that moment forward, I stopped worrying about agents and publishers and I remained immersed in the work. Strange things happened. The book and story morphed to something else. The Book is no longer The Book. The Focus is no longer The Focus.

The story grew to something bigger, with wider appeal, and resulted from nothing I deliberately plotted nor planned with my manuscript. It happened in mystery. I say “yes” to that.

2 thoughts on “Say Yes to All That: Guest post by Kathleen Tarr”

  1. Among several fine points, Kathy makes this one: "… it will be too difficult of a process if you don’t have a clear enough vision of the book."

    Here's playwright Gary Garrison, head of The Dramatist's Guild and an NYU theatre faculty member, writing in his June 25 e-flash, headlined …
    Not So Simply Said:

    I was in one of those potentially awkward situations last week: one small space that forced a handful of writers, directors, dramaturgs and several artistic directors to collide into each other with frequency. Quickly I learned not to carry a drink, to watch where I put my big feet, to keep a piece of gum in my desert-dry mouth and if at all possible, to actually remember the name of the person I was speaking to after asking them to repeat it at least twice.

    Generally I fare pretty well at gatherings like this because I rarely talk about myself, and instead put my energy towards getting my conversation partner to talk about him/herself. Unfortunately, that tactic wasn't going to work at this gathering because its primary purpose was to allow the playwrights to talk about themselves and their projects.

    First person up: artistic director, medium-sized theatre, very personable, sincere to know: “what are you working on?” What should have been a direct answer to a very simple question was instead the most diluted, directionless, unfocused, uninteresting mess of a description you could conceive of. The end result was either a horribly bad description of a good play or a good description of a horribly bad reality television show; too bad neither represented what I'd actually written.

    I left the event, tail tucked between my legs, duly humbled and determined to do better next time. I mean, here's the irony: for someone who professes to craft language, ideas, emotions and story for entertainment, I am at my absolute most inarticulate when asked to describe the very thing I should be an expert on.

    The whole event got me to thinking: Hollywood writers have it right; they've learned the art and professional necessity of the pitch. Or at least they understand its value and the skill necessary to pitch well. And while I don't think one would use a pitch the same way in theatre as you would in film, I really like the idea of being able to clarify my story down to two or three sentences that invites more conversation and inspires my listener to say, “tell me more,” instead of, “you think there's more dip?”

  2. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    That was great, Pico. And yes, I used to be uncomfortable with the idea of distilling one's work, but more recently, I've accepted the challenge. Everytime someone asks, "what's your new novel (screenplay, whatever) about?" it gives me a chance to practice explaining — succintly. It made me feel better a few years back when my own editor said it takes some trial and error to learn to pitch each of her authors' books — weeks or months of explaining to others (including bookstores!) until the just-right brief and compelling explanation takes shape. As Homer author Dan Coyle (TALENT CODE) would tell us, it's all about practicing.

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