The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Thursday, July 31, 2008

"Dead People Don't Sue"

by Tricia Dower

I didn't post last week because I was heavily involved in the Victoria School of Writing’s summer session. Not as the student I had been the previous two years. As a board member this time and—get this—as a guest lecturer, too. (Look, Ma!) It was fun. For an hour I stood before the approximately 50 students and faculty and spoke about using other works as inspiration: myths and fairly tales and religious writings, for example, and, in my case, Shakespeare. I got to delve into the Shakespearean connections in Silent Girl and read short excerpts from six of the stories. People came up to me afterwards to say they enjoyed it and I sold a few books, too.

Even more fun and less nerve-wracking was listening to the lectures and readings by this year’s faculty: novelists Kathy Page and Steven Galloway, poet Susan Stenson and memoir/creative nonfiction writers Curtis Gillespie and Rita Moir. They said all sorts of brilliant things and read all sorts of brilliant excerpts from their works, some of which made me laugh and some of which made me cry. And one-woman party starter Susan Stenson got us singing. I had intended to come away with detailed notes—I take my job as CWC Roving Arts Reporter seriously—but most of the events were in the ‘you had to be there’ category.

One exception was a nuts and bolts presentation about getting published by nonfiction writer Rosemary Neering who has authored more than 30 books and supports herself exclusively through writing. She doesn’t see dead people but she likes to write about them because she claims they don’t sue. A tiny, curly-haired energetic woman, she perched on a stool and spewed out as many tips as she could during the hour she was given. So for those of you who seek a career in non-fiction, I now dutifully spew out my notes:

  • Have a contract in hand before you write anything except a proposal.
  • The best reason for wanting to write a book? “I’m absolutely fascinated by this topic and the way I will write it will be just as fascinating.”
  • Think about what else writing the book can do for you: speaking engagements, teaching assignments, magazine articles.
  • Writing a proposal forces you to decide if you really want to write this book and if there really is a book there.
  • Make your proposal stand out from the very first sentence. Make sure that, among other things, it addresses: the unmet need your book satisfies; the market it serves and competing books within that market; the demographics of target readers; why you are especially qualified to write the book; the research you’ll do and the experts you’ll draw on.
  • Be concerned about the potential price of the book you propose, taking into consideration paper stock, photos and illustrations required. Expensive books don’t sell as well.
  • When shopping for a publisher (Neering has never had an agent), ask bookstores what publishers they like to work with. Do you like the look of those publishers’ books? Steer clear of academic presses because she says they’ll take your copyright and make you go through a peer review. (Note: not true for fiction. Can anyone reading this refute Neering's claim for nonfiction?)
  • Add six months to your estimate of the time it will take you to complete the book. As soon as you sign a contract, the publisher puts it in their catalogue and the pressure to deliver begins.
  • When contracting for royalties, don’t settle for less than 10% of retail book price or 15% of net receipts.
  • When beginning your research, cast your net wide. The Internet is good for leads but not for substantive research. Neering begins in the children’s section of the library because it establishes a baseline of reader knowledge of the topic at hand. She reads voraciously at first without taking notes—magazines, newspapers, books, archival records—going shallow and wide to survey her topic.
  • A final humbling thought: Neering says 10,000 new books are released in Canada every year, but it's still not easy for yours to be among them.

Notebook closed. Now, go write a proposal.

Image: cover of one of Rosemary Neering’s books about dead people.


Blogger SeeDoubleYou said...

"Have a contract in hand before you write anything except a proposal."

I was actually just wondering this. I'm working on the proposal for a potential idea right now, and was wondering if I should be pitching to editors with "just" the proposal ready.


Thu Jul 31, 03:14:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

You're welcome! I shall reopen my notebook to give you a few more of Neering's comments about proposals. She includes chapter headings and a sample chapter. (Never the introductory chapter she says -- it's not meaty enough.) She says it doesn't matter if you later change your chapter headings and the sample you provided once you get deep into your research. You're mostly showing your writing style and your organizational ability with the proposal.

Thu Jul 31, 03:57:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Tricia, this is really practical advice- bless Neering, and you for channelling her!

Thu Jul 31, 04:52:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Andrew. I'm glad you find it helpful.

Thu Jul 31, 06:38:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger T. Lee said...

How fantastic is that, to be a lecturer. This is great, very informative post. Thanks, Tricia.

Fri Aug 01, 12:22:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks, Tamara.

Fri Aug 01, 02:40:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Great tips and advice. Thanks, Tricia.

Tue Aug 05, 02:57:00 am GMT-4  

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