The production process
I am at last the proud author and publisher of a memoir titled Out of Sync. Spanning the past ten years of my life as an expatriate, the story explores the impact of personal transformation and global change within the context of post-apartheid South Africa and post-9/11 America.
In 2008, three years after I’d started writing this story (with help from a great mentor and some accomplished critics), I considered it good enough to be published. Within four months of shopping the manuscript to agents, I had received two calls for full submission and two for partial, plus a call from Random House, S.A. for full submission. Sadly, I failed to make a sale. My champions advised me to keep at it, but I deduced from the process that while the manuscript was successful for the most part, it was lacking in some or other way. I kept revising the manuscript with the help of a professional editor. Eventually, it dawned on me that the fault resided in the structure. My notion was confirmed after the entire manuscript had been reviewed during the nonfiction semester of my MFA program. In a final revision, I changed the sequential storyline to read less like an autobiography, rather reflecting the traditional anatomy of a memoir.
The book is now delineated by sections that are location-based— South Africa, San Francisco, The North, The South, The Midwest—each section divided into (sequential) chapters that indicate the progression of the story. The book starts with a prologue that sets up the core dilemma, followed by details of South Africa’s history that are appropriate to the narrative. It continues with a chronological unfolding of events in the United States, interspersed with flashbacks to earlier times in South Africa. Although it’s not really an epistolary narrative, a number of ‘incoming’ and ‘outgoing’ e-mails reflect the wellspring of content—exchanges of news with family and friends at a time fraught with misgivings. Some interesting devices enhance the metaphoric qualities of the narrative. While the surface structure deals with multiple relocations, the deep structure reveals a search for identity—these two threads converge in the epilogue that concludes the story.
The submission process
As I’ve disclosed in an earlier post—Will The True Mentors Please Step Forward?—it’s taken me five years to get to this point, including oodles of money spent on writing classes and an MFA degree, countless critiques and rejection letters, and a great deal of frustration at a publishing industry that seems to favor the bottom line over talent and hard work.
In the course of shopping my manuscript to literary agents the second time around, I painstakingly sorted the ‘good’ rejection letters from the ‘bad’ ones, hoping to gain some insight from the feedback, or rather the lack thereof. The turning point was realizing that the rejections kept coming in while I knew neither my writing nor the book could have deteriorated. As I was reading yet another “although the story is compelling and the writing is good, this book is not a right fit for our list,” comment, I got really pissed off at the deceit—enough has been said in blogs and the media about junior screeners evaluating manuscripts by means of an ‘academic’ checklist and unread manuscripts being dumped in the slush pile. I could understand that it might be ‘just another book’ to a busy agent, but it was the future to me. Disappointment morphed into depression, though only for a short while, since self-publishing was fast becoming the norm. Once I’d made up my mind to join this growing trend, I got really excited about the prospect of taking control of my career.
The self-publishing process
According to this article in Highbrow Magazine written by Gerry LaFemina, the issue with self-published books is one of legitimacy. Of course, the ‘judges’ could only be those whose professional existence is suddenly threatened by the new business model—so it’s really just the shoe being on the other foot, if you’ll forgive the cliché. Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there, writers driven by a free-for-all mindset instead of professionalism. Still, the lackadaisical attitude of a few should not warrant such overall disdain; it makes a lot less sense than the public’s continued reverence for drug-addicted Hollywood stars.
In my recent experience as a self-published author, the kind support and professional performance of peers have exceeded my expectations. For writers who prefer not to engage with the complete gamut of tasks, there are indie publishing services galore: critics, editors, formatters for e-books, cover designers and typesetters for print books, as well as a host of aggregators, print-on-demand publishers, distributors, and retailers to choose from. However, thinking that I had probably already invested more than I could hope to regain, I decided to do it all myself.
In my next post I’ll share more details about my self-publishing experience as well as links to various resources together with comments about their strengths and weaknesses. After that, I’m starting a series of posts that will explore my MFA craft thesis: How to Track Character Transformation in Relation to Plot Development.
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