Patience, a willingness to learn, and the ability to revise one’s work extensively: those are just a few of the qualities that were essential to the success of three Jamaica Plain authors who took part in a panel discussion on book writing and publishing Monday evening.
The discussion, held at the Connolly Branch of the Boston Public Library, was moderated by Katie Eelman, director of media and events at Papercuts JP and co-founder and editor-in-chief at Cutlass Press, an independent book publisher based out of Papercuts.
The story of her blacklisted father
As the panelists noted, it can take years to get from the idea stage to a polished, edited book. “You can’t be impatient because it takes forever and a day,” said Mindy Fried, author of Caring for Red: A Daughter’s Memoir.
Fried said that her book began as blog posts about her elderly father’s experiences in assisted living and evolved into a memoir about her role in his care giving, one that offers a sociological perspective on the subject. (Fried - one of the co-founders of JP Porchfest - is a sociologist by training.) The book also weaves in details about her father’s personal history. An actor, writer, and labor organizer, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and eventually blacklisted, a development that had lasting consequences for him and his family.
Fried said that as her father declined, she started thinking that writing about her experiences with him wasn’t just a way to help her with her grieving process; this work might have wider relevance to others in a similar situation. After he died, she took a one-day memoir workshop that helped her arrive at an important realization: crafting a book about her experiences would involve much more than just piecing together her blog posts about her father. Instead, Fried realized, she would have to figure out the larger arc of the story she wanted to tell. As she crafted that story, she sought responses both from people who knew her father and from those who were not familiar with him.
Fried said that before the book was published by Vanderbilt University Press, it went through an extensive editorial process. It had to pass muster not only with the head of the press but also with outside readers, who provided extensive feedback that she had to respond to, eventually shaping the final manuscript.
One of the major pieces of feedback was that even though Fried wasn’t writing a how-to book, she needed to provide more practical information for readers, such as details about the cost of assisted living and about medication management. In response, she hired someone to do some basic research into aging policy, and she wove the findings into her story.
“I loved being able to bring my own perspective to the policy stuff,” she said.
Coming to understand the craft
Katie Bayerl, author of the young-adult mystery novel A Psalm for Lost Girls, described her road to publication as an extended learning process. After winning the PEN New England Children’s Book Discovery Award for an earlier work, she got this manuscript in front of a children’s book editor, who said, “You do some things really well, but the story’s not coming together.”
Reflecting on this experience, Bayerl said, “It was my best work at the time, but I didn’t know yet what I didn’t know.” She said she was inspired to further her education, and she pursued an MFA.
Armed with her degree and her draft of A Psalm for Lost Girls, she began approaching literary agents about representing the book. One responded quickly, saying that although the book wasn’t for her, she thought that one of her colleagues—who was just starting to build her young-adult list—might be interested in the manuscript, and she was. Bayerl said that she and this second agent have made a “miraculously good pairing” and that she is grateful for all of the time that this agent has put into the book. Working together for a year and a half, the two of them thoroughly revised the book before submitting it to publishers.
Bayerl said that through this process, she’s come to understand the craft of putting together a book in a way that she didn’t in her earlier effort to get published.
The advantages of signing with a small press
Beth Castrodale, author of the historical novel Marion Hatley, had shelved her book after she had some “close calls” with literary agents but no takers. Months later, the editor of a small press got in touch with Castrodale, saying that she’d enjoyed one of her short stories and wanted to know if Castrodale had any novels in the pipeline.
Castrodale then sent Marion Hatley to the editor, who shared the novel with the press’s editorial board. Although the editor and the board liked the book, they thought it needed work. Through a back-and-forth process lasting several months, Castrodale revised the manuscript extensively.
Castrodale said that even though a writer might not agree with every bit of feedback, it’s important not to dismiss any criticism out of hand.
“Someone may tell you that X is wrong with your manuscript, and you might not agree," Castrodale said. "But this criticism could be a clue that something is wrong, and you need to identify what that might be. Then you need to figure out how to address the problem.”
Castrodale and Fried said that because small presses and university presses don’t have as much marketing muscle as larger publishers, their authors have to play a significant role in promoting their books. However, according to Castrodale, signing with a small press has certain advantages. For example, unlike most larger presses, small presses often give authors a say in the covers for their books.
Castrodale said that she enjoyed her role in designing the cover for Marion Hatley, a process she wrote about on her author website.
After the panel discussion, Eelman noted that Papercuts is enlarging Jamaica Plain’s literary footprint through its new publishing arm, Cutlass Press. Cutlass’s newest book, A Dream Between Two Rivers: Stories of Liminality by KL Pereira, will be published in September.