Author Archives: mjaneross

Pitching Our Stories: Notes from a writers’ conference

M. Jane Ross

Just home from the annual Writers' League of Texas Agents Conference—a weekend of intense listening, learning, getting to know some warm-hearted and talented Texan writers, meeting agents, and pitching stories. In a detour from my usual topic of food, I wanted to share my takeaways (the non-edible kind) from the weekend. Three key points rose to the top in the ocean of information that was the conference.

The state of the publishing industry

In two words: upheaval and distress! Publishers, and by extension agents and writers, have been badly affected by the recession. Book buyers simply have less money to spend. And beyond that, corporatization and consolidation in bookselling and trade publishing as well as huge transitions in the way we all read, how and where we buy books, and the kinds of books we are buying have thrown the book business into disarray.

Until recently, big-name publishers were very willing to invest in mid-list titles, books by unknown authors that were likely to sell “only” in the tens of thousands of copies. Now, those same publishers are looking primarily for front-list titles (blockbuster books by high profile authors, likely to sell hundreds of thousands of copies) or back-list titles (books that are likely to develop a required-reading quality in some area of the market and to become automatic re-orders at Barnes and Noble over many years). So where does that leave the memoir writer and the typical SCN author? 

Jane (r) with new conference friends Stacey Jensen & Ned Bailey

The market for memoir

Alas memoir writers’ prospects in New
York trade publishing are not promising, unless the story has both
exceptional writing —“sparkling” was the word used by several
agents—and a unique angle. Agent Jim Hornfischer gave the example
of an author he had agreed to represent as a result of pitch session at
a writers conference. The author worked as a volunteer in canine search
and rescue. Her story was a memoir about the work she did with her dog,
whether searching for the remains of the Columbia astronauts across the
fields of north Texas or finding missing children in her community.
Hers is a unique and poignant story with drama and a clear narrative
arc as the author learns to handle loss and to work with communities in
trauma.

Few of us have a story this unique or dramatic.
More often, our memoirs are the stories of learning to deal with the
trials and losses that are inherent in relationship and in life, within
the communities (geographical, religious, professional, and other) in
which we move. But although our stories may not have the drama and
potential to attract a national book audience, as writers we can (and
should) stay focused on crafting that sparkling prose. And we can focus
too on reaching our own unique platform and audience by other means,
whether through self-publishing, blogging, or a small-press publisher.

Know your platform

Agents stressed repeatedly the importance of knowing your platform.
If you’re Dr. Phil, your platform is your TV show and the show’s
audience. For us non-celebrities, our platforms are the communities in
which we live, work, play, volunteer, pray, share, etc. If your memoir
is of caring for an aging parent suffering from Alzheimers and you are
active in an online forum for Alzheimer caregivers, the readers of that
forum are part of your platform. If you blog and write about herbs,
then your blog readers and other herbalists are part of your platform.
Your platform includes both the medium by which you connect with others
interested in your subject and the number of engaged readers you’re
able to reach through that medium. However you plan to publish your story, you need to identify your platform. You’ll include that information in your book proposal, and you’ll refer to it as you craft the marketing plan for your book.

The best takeaway from the conference for me personally was being reminded that there is a supportive community of writers out there, sharing this journey. Beyond that, I’ve made connections with reputable agents and learned what they are looking for so I can bring that knowledge with me when I talk to my editing clients and writing circle members. I’ll soon be announcing my manuscript evaluation service. The conference experience brought me fresh knowledge and connections so I can better help writers who come to me for assistance as they take the next step towards publication.

There's so much more I could tell you about the conference. But why don't you tell me what you'd like to know. Looking forward to your questions, which I'll answer in subsequent posts.

Empowering Authors

Congratulations to Matilda Butler and Kendra Bonnett on the launch of the SCN Editorial Service—I’m delighted to be a participant in the service. As Kendra said in her recent blog post, a good editor plays an important role in helping the author craft her work. When we’re working to the highest level of our calling, we editors help the author to speak more clearly in her own voice and to recognize and articulate her deepest aspirations for her writing.

Title page of an 1808 treatise on math. MJ Ross  I’ve been a freelance editor for 13 years. Early on, all my clients were large publishing companies. Self publishing was rare. Recently I’ve noticed many more inquiries coming through my freelance business from authors who want to learn more about the many ways to approach the question,  “how do I get my book published?” Publishing has been democratized by self-publishing and especially thanks to print on demand. Authors are feeling empowered to pursue their own dreams for their writing, whether seeking an agent and publisher or self-publishing. And they’re not afraid of the steep learning curve involved in approaching publishing from either angle.

Just this week, I exchanged emails with one of the members of the editorial team for Kitchen Table Stories. She wanted some advice on where to start with a self-publishing project similar to KTS that her local writers' group was planning. My reply to her may be helpful for others interested in the process:

There are many many steps in the process of producing a professional-looking anthology and you'll want to check who among your group has some of the skills you’ll need for all these steps. The more you can do with volunteer labor, the less you'll have to pay out of your pocket. The steps include:

•    coordinating the submission process and selecting the pieces to include,
•    editing the pieces so that they conform to a house style,
•    getting author feedback on edits and finalizing changes,
•    formatting headings etc. by applying the correct Word styles,
•    selecting any art or illustrations needed,
•    coming up with a design (fonts, type size, indents, spacing, etc.),
•    doing the layout,
•    proofreading,
•    inputting corrections,
•    making sure the copyright page includes all the necessary info,
•    designing a cover,
•    writing cover copy,
•    making arrangements to get an ISBN if desired,
•    commissioning art or finding an illustration or photo for the cover,
•    laying out the cover,
•    outputting all files in a format that the printer can use,
•    getting files to the printer,
•    checking a proof of the printed book.

As you can see there's a lot to think about, and there are many choices to be made along the way. The SCN editorial service can provide you with the editing and proofing assistance you'll need. And I’d be happy to help any authors who want to take up the self-publishing (or the traditional publishing) challenge and need some guidance.

Our Cookbook Now Up on Amazon!

M. Jane Ross

Great news! Story Circle Network has just opened an account to sell SCN publications through Amazon.com. Executive Director Peggy Moody filled out the online application earlier this month with our own cookbook-anthology Kitchen Table Stories as the first online product. As soon as we shipped our stock to Amazon, anyone anywhere in North America was able to get their copies direct from Amazon, with all the click-and-smile ease that we’ve come to expect from the company.

Kitchen Table Stories continues to be available directly from SCN. Actually, the SCN sales are now handled by SCN founder Susan Wittig Albert herself, and if you like, you can ask her to inscribe your copy when you order. Since SCN keeps 100% of the purchase price from these direct sales, we certainly hope that members of the SCN “family” and our close friends will want to order our cookbook from Susan Albert's book-order page and benefit SCN.

The new Amazon listing for Kitchen Table Stories will allow us to reach out and sell to a much broader audience. We're excited that we'll now be accessible to readers who may not know SCN and who might be hesitant to place an order through a website they don’t know but are totally comfortable with ordering from Amazon.

Yes, as Easy as Rhubarb Pie, MJ Ross. Over the rest of this year, I’ll be working on some book promotion ideas aimed at bringing our book to the attention of the new generation of home cooks. I owe a debt of gratitude to book publicist Amanda Willis for pointing out to me just how relevant our recipes and stories are to today’s economy. We’ll be working on reaching folks who are rediscovering home cooking and baking and looking for frugal and tasty ways to stretch the family’s food budget. I’ll certainly be getting in touch with the authors featured in the book to enlist your help (drop me a line if you’re keen to get started or would like to help plan this effort).

The Amazon.com page for Kitchen Table Stories is now open for business and I’m looking forward to sharing our own down-home stories and flavors with home cooks everywhere!

Food Writing to Fly By

M Jane Ross

Have you noticed, airplane food has gone from mediocre via dismal to non-existent!

For better or worse, on my recent trip to Vancouver to visit my daughter, I had packed the most scrumptious and mouthwatering reading of the year: The Best Food Writing of 2008, edited by Holly Hughes. I hungrily slurped up succulent chapters on every food group from biscuits to pork butt via foie gras and mangoes. And I wolfed down detailed descriptions of meals from some of the US’s superstar chefs, all while I crunched on the only food available on two flights and five hours of flying—a couple of dry-as-cardboard granola bars I’d thrown into my purse on my way out the door. As a chaser to that dismal fare, the book was torture, but in a good way.

The 48 short chapters all originally appeared in other publications, mostly as articles in major magazines and newspapers, though several are excerpted from cookbooks and foodie memoirs. Many are written by professional food writers (ah, now there’s a job I could go for). What I came away from the book with (aside from hunger pangs) is that, in the most engaging writing, the author’s passion for their subject shines through in every element of their story.

Learning to make sausages. MJ Ross 2008. These writers don’t just tell us, “I love Cajun food.” They show it, unequivocally. They chronicle week-long excursions in search of the perfect gumbo. They risk ridicule from chefs and cooks and eviction from their family homes in their fervent desire to understand and master the preparation of a dish they’re passionate about. They describe not only the tastes, smells and textures of the subject of their passion. They research and then describe every detail they can find of their ingredients’ provenance. And wow, does this search for knowledge and flavor enliven their writing. Just the way the dollop of foie gras that they add to the hamburgers at Sweets and Savories restaurant in Chicago turns a plain old sandwich into a work of art (see Peter Sagal’s article, "Let Them Eat Paté," on p. 13 of The Best Food Writing of 2008).

Writing prompt: Show your passion for your subject: look for ways you can research the subject of your stories to enliven the writing. For example, you can look up historical details of the places you write about using the internet. Or better yet, go back to a place from your past and talk to longtime locals about their memories of the place.  Like baking bread, you’ll get a better, tastier, more authentic product if you get your hands dirty and experience the details of your story up close and as personal as you can get.

Scarcity and Abundance: Sharing Our Stories

M. Jane Ross

Have you seen the internet cooking demos of “Clara’s Great Depression Cooking?” Clara is a remarkably spry and sharp 91-year-old Sicilian-American who loves to cook the Depression-era meals she remembers from her youth and to interweave her cooking with stories from the past. Her grandson offered to video her cooking up some of these Depression favorites and after he’d posted several on YouTube, Clara  became an internet cooking sensation, eventually being interviewed on the morning television shows. She now has a DVD out showing her at work in her modest kitchen cooking up such dishes as Poorman’s Meal and Egg Soup.

Clara’s videos got me thinking about SCN’s own contribution to the down-home school of cooking, the Kitchen Table Stories cookbook and anthology of cooking stories. Looking back over the 60 stories contributed by our SCN authors, I realized what recurring and compelling themes there are in the twin poles of scarcity and abundance.

As Clara discovered, there is something about scarcity that sears food memories into our consciousness. Even in the midst of poverty, certain dishes can give us a sense of abundance and comfort, and their aromas and the stories behind them take firm hold of our imagination. In the worst of times, we find for a moment in a skillet of potatoes and eggs or a plate of griddle scones, the very best of times. 

MJ Ross 1999.  At the other end of the spectrum are our sweet memories of true abundance, most often associated in our Story Circle authors’ minds with their grandparents’ farm or a backyard vegetable garden or chicken flock. While the rest of the country suffered Depression-era deprivation, in small pockets of the country close to the land, abundance could be found. In Kitchen Table Stories, Susan Albert recounts her memories of milking her grandfather’s cows and drinking the sweet creamy milk at breakfast, and Marian Haigh shares memories of gathering eggs from Grandma’s chickens to make rich egg noodles. In these stories our authors mirrored the abundance of home-grown food with an abundance of sensory images for us to savor.

What I love most about Clara’s Great Depression Cooking videos is the reaffirmation of the value of the stories of ordinary women and of older women. Clara’s videos have somehow captured the essence of the meaning of cooking and stories for our families and friends. Clara hasn’t yet written a cookbook. Perhaps by the time she writes her Kitchen Table Stories-type cookbook, some of our own Kitchen Table Stories authors will have been inspired by her example to make videos of their cooking or their stories to share with family and friends and maybe even with the world.

Writing Prompt: I wonder, in the new 21st Century Depression and with the new interest in Victory Gardens and backyard chicken flocks, is a new generation forging these same memories of abundance even in the midst of a pervading sense of scarcity? Are we rediscovering some of the unglamorous but delicious recipes of our parents and grandparents and the incredible flavor of real homegrown and home-cooked foods? How are you or your family creating a sense of down-home abundance in tough times?

Check out SCN’s Kitchen Table Stories.

Watch Clara’s Great Depression Cooking videos on YouTube.

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir

M Jane Ross

This past week I had the great good fortune to hear writer Natalie Goldberg speak when she visited Austin for a book signing. Goldberg was here at the end of a book tour to promote the recently released paperback edition of her latest book, Old Friend from Far Away: the practice of writing memoir

I bought copies of Old Friend and her very first book, the one that made her name as a writer and writing teacher, Writing Down the Bones, which I’d always felt as if I’d read—I’d heard so much about it—but never had. This was the book that in 1986 cracked open the black box of writing craft and writing practice and made the psychic engine of writing and all its nuts and bolts visible and accessible to aspiring writers.

Old Friend carries on where Writing Down the Bones left off, with dozens of writing prompts interspersed with reflections on the mind, memory, and the writing process.

Cosmos-Physique. MJ Ross, All Rights ReservedGoldberg began doing sitting meditation in her twenties and had been a student of Zen Buddhism for 10 years before she published Writing Down the Bones. Her Zen teacher Katagiri Roshi had suggested to her early in her studies with him that she make writing her Zen practice. Goldberg dismissed this idea and did her best to be diligent and sincere in her sitting meditation, believing only thus could she gain some control of the monkey mind. It was while she was working on Writing Down the Bones that she understood how writing could be a practice that would do for the mind just what Zen meditation does, allowing us see our thoughts as just thoughts and waking us up to the present moment.

We all know the cathartic effect of journaling about the frustrations and upsets of life. Suffering arises from our wanting life, things, circumstances to be other than they are; so says the Zen tradition. In writing practice—and journaling certainly can be writing practice—we use the writing moment to document things exactly as they are and, if we stay with it, the documenting alone allows us to let go of a neurotic craving for those things to change. The key is to write through and beyond complaint to the other side, to the point where the object of our complaint is simply observed, witnessed, and allowed to be just what it is. We might write about a loved one who has Alzheimers and the pain we feel as their memory and sense of self slip away. And in the writing and the witnessing we give dignity to their life and touch the beauty of the fleeting moments of connection we can still share.

The recurring refrain in Goldberg’s new book Old Friend is, “Write ten minutes. Go.” From “Broken” to “Fish” to “Everything,” her many short writing-prompt chapters will spark myriad memories and give you myriad points of entry to your own writing practice.

Copyright: Protecting Your Blog Posts

M Jane Ross

A week ago, an SCN friend contacted me for advice on a thorny problem. She suspected that whole paragraphs, personal reminiscences of her own, and photos she had taken had been lifted from her blog and from her 2008 book of personal stories and inserted into very similar stories on someone else’s blog. 

My friend sought advice from several quarters, including her lawyer brother, decided how she was going to handle the situation, and within a week was successful in seeing much of the copyrighted text removed from the other blog. There were some useful lessons in this SCN member’s experience for any of us who might find our writing has been copied without permission. If this happens to you, how can you know for certain whether the other party has infringed your copyright and what should you do about it?

My advice as a publishing professional is this (see disclaimer below):

1. Understand that your writing is covered by copyright law as soon as you write it. And it is covered when it is posted on the internet. Never mind the fact that you have no way of physically preventing someone from copying your words, copyright law still applies. You do not need to register your copyright or even have a copyright notice on your blog or web page for the copyright to exist.

2. Make sure you are very clear about the exact passages of your text that have been copied and the ways your words have been altered to make them seem superficially different in the copy. Vague similarities or a blog post on the same theme as yours do not constitute copyright infringement.

3. Once you have documented the extent of the copying, don’t wait to deal with the issue. Act as soon as possible to address it.

By Esther_G. Some rights reserved. Creative commons license. My Writing Is My Writing Is My Writing.
4. Do not use a public forum (such as your blog) to accuse a particular person of plagiarism! In the first instance, give the copier the benefit of the doubt. They may simply be unaware that their copying is unauthorized. Plagiarism is a very dirty word and accusations of plagiarism have destroyed careers. So tread softly. At the same time, you can certainly post on your blog how it feels to suspect that you have been plagiarized, without naming names or linking to the offending blog. In fact, your copier may read this post and take down the copied text of their own accord.

5. Do turn to your own writing community for advice, especially if you have a lawyer or a publisher in that community. But be careful not to libel the person you believe has copied you nor to start a witch hunt against them.

6. Make sure you own the moral high ground and that you yourself have not copied anyone else’s work without permission, including pictures. Downloading and reposting pictures from Google Images or Ebay is as much a breach of copyright as copying someone else’s text. So do the right thing: remove any material from your own blog that you do not have permission to use. Use only pictures that you do have permission to use or pictures that have a Creative Commons license such as those on the Flickr photo-sharing website’s creative commons area.

7. Be prepared to contact directly the person whom you believe has copied your text, giving very specific information about the instances where their text is identical or close to identical to yours. Though copyright is a legal matter with complex rules, very often the issue can be resolved with a polite but firm request to the person you believe has made an unauthorized copy of your work that they remove this copyrighted text from the web. The copying may have been done without a clear understanding of how this constitutes plagiarism and the offender may be anxious to save face.

8. Tell your truth. Point out how you have put considerable time and energy into writing your blog posts. Explain how the other person’s use of your words could damage your reputation as an author, if future readers don’t notice that your original piece was published before the copied version. Tell them you expect them to remove the text that they posted without permission by a certain date. Or alternatively if you prefer, ask them to give you credit for the text they have copied.

9. Do add a copyright notice to your own blog.

If this approach does not work and you feel strongly about retaining the copyright of this copied text, it may be time to call a lawyer for advice.

And take some time to learn about copyright. There’s lots of good information online at the US Copyright Office and plagiarism.org. Sharon Lippincott includes some excellent links at the end of her blog article on copyright here.

Disclaimer: This advice is for information only. It is not legal advice. If you need legal advice on a specific copyright-related issue, consult a lawyer. The advice presented here is the view of the author alone and not of Story Circle Network.