Raise your hands!
Is your anger and resentment so all-consuming that you can talk about nothing to friend and family other than how awful your ex is being toward you, how mistreated and marginalized you were at work, or how loathsome and certifiable your neighbor is? Are you cornering virtual strangers in the supermarket and subjecting them to your indignant tirade, when all they wanted was help getting a can of peas off the top shelf? When you saw Charlie Shanian, Tori Spelling’s ex-husband last week on “The Dr. Keith Ablow Show,” did you scream: BOOK ME!
A memoir fueled by anger fairly flies off the page, so writing it might be easy and even, let’s admit it, exhilarating. Nonetheless, I strongly suggest you finish this post before you open a new Word document and start to pound your fingers into bloody stubs, 24/7. Maybe you don’t have a book. Maybe a blog will do. Or maybe it is all BS and you shouldn’t do anything but lick your wounds and get on with your life. The fact is, no literary agent or editor will want to put on hip boots and wade through your pools of vomitus unless you’ve got something worthy to rage-write about, along with a big audience eager to take a vicarious slog with you.
You’re writing your memoir to help others! You say your motives are altruistic? Don’t kid yourself! If you are going to rage-write, spare me the “if I can make a difference in just one person’s life” blather. How often have you heard that one and then gotten a front row seat as a family’s excruciatingly embarrassing dirty linen gets hung out in public? Is your goal really to protect those nebulous “others” you profess to care so deeply about? Hah! Rage writing is not about helping others. There is just too much unfettered joy in exposing someone as a hypocritical fraud or mean-spirited opportunist—fill in your own descriptors! If you know in your heart of angry hearts that retribution and making people PAY, figuratively, if not literally, is part of the equation, then admit it—unabashedly–to yourself and others. He’ll regret the day he was born!
What about the backlash? Take seriously the possibility that your efforts might boomerang. Bridges may go up in flames not only behind you, but in front of you, too. Do you remember You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Julia Phillips? That book was a tell-all about Hollywood. The hardcover was published in 1991 and the paperback was reprinted in 2002 by NAL Trade. I believe Ms. Phillips never did eat lunch in that town again.
And if you might have been or should have been straightjacketed, like Kathy O’Beirne, author of Don’t Ever Tell, the 350,000-copies-sold autobiography/memoir about her alleged torture and rape by Irish priests, pregnancy at 14, whippings by overzealous, ruler-wielding nuns, and your entire family (all seven brothers and sisters in O’Beirne’s case) will step forward and wave your dirty panties or boxers for all to see and undermine the credibility of your memoir, perhaps you want to consider an intensive anger management course, rather than write a memoir. Your own reputation might wind up as sullied as the people about whom you gleefully write in your memoir. (Another Freygate!)
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about all memoirs. Hilary Clinton’s 2002 memoir, Living History, or Lynn Scherr’s just-released, Outside the Box—a Memoir, do not fall into the category of rage-writing, though I don’t doubt for a second that there might have been some subtle potshots these books could have taken if the authors had wanted to! However, these women do intend to eat lunch in this town again. They realize that the time for rage-writing is not yet right and, for them, it may never be! But if it ever is, get out of the way of the stampede.
Does anybody give a hoot? No literary agent or traditional publisher is going to offer you a book contract and a six-figure advance for your diatribe — whoops, memoir — until you develop a “Who Cares” list. Maybe it’s just you! And no one is going to care if you are not saying something new about divorce (or whatever), but are spewing the same old bitter rant. Are there enough people interested in your particular obnoxious boss to sell more than a handful of copies of your book? Is your neighbor just like everybody else’s creepy neighbor? The object of your attack needs to be worthy of vilification.
So before you even submit your query letter and book proposal, you need to break your reading audience down into bite-size bits and work the numbers. Want an example of the reasoning process? Here’s one, “ripped from the pages of real life,” as they say:
Some of you might recall a lawsuit I mentioned in a previous post, Bela Szigethy v. Lynne W. Scanlon, in which my neighbor sued me in an effort to acquire a portion of property I own on Halsey Island in Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. The three incredibly stressful and expensive years that elapsed between the day a Marshall served a formal Complaint and the day a jury ultimately returned a verdict in my favor make me want to weep – or even better, rage-write!
I saw Bela Szigethy’s lawsuit against me, his neighbor, as a confrontation between Goliath v. David, and I seriously considered putting together a memoir about it. However, before even getting started, the question I had to answer for myself was: “Is there an entire book in this story of Corporate Raider v. Writer? Or should I just be content with continuing to take every opportunity to unburden myself on friends, family and total strangers until I’ve ventilated myself into a puddle of spent protoplasm on the floor?”
Maybe? Probably? No?
What’s the potential market, really? You simply must ask yourself this question. I did. Here’s my list of people possibly interested in my memoir:
- Halsey Island Residents: Only 20 families. Nice people, good people, kind people, generous people, and there-in-a-pinch people, but not this pinch, or only guardedly. So maybe they don’t even want to think about it any more, let alone read about it. Twenty books at most and probably less? Forget it. I’m not getting rich off that.
- Goliath: He might try to buy every single copy printed to keep them out of the local Barnes & Noble, Borders Books or Books-a-Million in the Lake Hopatcong area. Still, since publishers print so few first editions, the 2,500 or 3,000 copies hot off the press and stored in his basement wouldn’t generate even gas money for me, let alone help me earn back that fantasy six-figure advance-against-royalties. One book or 3,000 books sold and ultimately burned by him don’t interest me.
- Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club and Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum: Bela Szigethy is a member of the Lake Hopatcong Yacht Club as well as a contributor to the Lake Hopatcong Historical Museum. I’ve got gleeful, eager buyers in this crowd, but how many? A few hundred? Not enough to rock the literary world with sales figures.
- The Riverside Company in New York City: When I last looked, Szigethy’s company had $143 million dollars in earnings in 2005 and 4,000 employees. He’s been merging and acquiring, doing best what M&A guys do to turnaround companies (don’t ask, you know) for years. Even if all the employees were to hunker down in their cubicles, furtively reading my book while keeping a wary eye out for the bosses, we’re not talking more than a few thousand copies sold. On the other hand, the sales would probably occur quickly and at full-price!
- Oberlin College: Hey, I’m on a roll! Yep, he is a graduate of Oberlin College and a busy alumnus. What’s the count: the president of the college, a few professors, the odd(!) student, former classmates? Not a significant number of book buyers, I wouldn’t think.
- Law Firms with Adverse Possession Cases: (That’s MY flowerbed. No, it’s mine! What do you mean my driveway is on your property? That deck is over the line.) Even though all the people working at Garrity Graham Favetta & Flinn, the law firm that represented me, including Thomas D. Flinn, hero to all damsels tied to the railroad tracks, would hightail it to the bookstore to buy my memoir in quantity, the truth is that law firms get their info from legal references, not personal memoirs. True, my victory was precedent-setting and made the cover of the New Jersey Law Journal right after the verdict came in, but a few hundred copies sold to firm members and partners’ relatives are the most I could hope for.
- Anyone with a land dispute: Judge W. Hunt Dumont (hey, he might buy a book or two himself!) said in the courtroom that the vast majority of civil cases involve land disputes. Whoa, that’s a lot of people. In fact, some of the prospective jurors were excused because they had ongoing land disputes. Now we are talking high numbers of potential book buyers. But how motivated would they be to buy a book about somebody else’s problems, even though those problems might be somewhat similar to their own?
- Nosey Neighbors: In my last post, I talked about location, location, location as being an important tool in boosting sales for fiction. The same holds true for nonfiction. While the town of Flanders, New Jersey isn’t a resort area like Old Orchard Beach, Maine, Bela Szigethy is a hometown-boy-made-good. His high school buddies would buy a few books, as would members of his minister-father’s former Presbyterian congregation. My memoir would offer a little après-Sunday-dinner reading among folks who espouse “love they neighbor as thyself” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” More sales, definitely. For them, we might just be talking “page-turner.”
Ok, once you’ve done some calculating, you also need to ask yourself the following question:
How important is timing? Is it too late to write your memoir? Some books have to be cranked out fast and furiously before public interest fades or a subject is exhausted. Other books have to be postponed perhaps for decades until the market is ripe for your memoir. (Bela Szigethy is no Sumner Redstone.)
Fear of Libel: Be afraid. Very afraid. You need to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Don’t lie. Don’t embellish. Don’t create composite characters. Don’t be the old James Frey or the new Kathy O’Beirne. Can you restrain yourself enough to do that?
In summary, if you’ve got a searing memoir to write, instead of stewing and annoying shopper after shopper (people run screaming when I enter the supermarket!), consider putting it in writing—but only if you’ve got the readership locked in. And make sure you are getting what you want out of the experience, that there isn’t something that would make writing a memoir completely unnecessary—like a sincere apology. Yes, you might let the object of your splenetic desire know what it would take to get you to stop your memoir before you start it or stop it at the half-way point before it goes public. Sometimes, an acknowledgement of the wrong done to you and an apology is enough. Then again, sometimes it is not.
Or you could just blog about your nemesis, kick back and smile.
It’s okay to put your hands down now!
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