Why Trying to Please Everyone Can Torpedo Your Book
Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. In the fifth post of our Publishing U series, agent Mackenzie Brady and author Hannah Brencher share some hard-earned lessons about staying true to your own vision as an author.
Mackenzie Brady: While it’s true that most writers query agents with one project at a time, I’ve rarely encountered a writer who doesn’t have a least a few other ideas on the back burner. In fact, I’ve worked with writers who often shift between several projects at once. The trick to keeping all these pots simmering is to remember that each project is its own contained universe. This is especially important for memoirists, who are constantly plumbing the same resource—their lives—for new and inventive book ideas.
Take Hannah Brencher, for example. I first encountered Hannah via her TED talk, in which she spoke about pulling herself out of a depression by leaving love letters to strangers all over NYC. I immediately thought this woman must write a book!
We got a lot of rejection letters.
And while her memoir, entitled If You Find This Letter, will be published in March, that almost wasn’t the case. During our first few exploratory meetings, Hannah shared with me so many of the wonderful stories she had stuffed inside that mind of hers. It was exciting to think about all of the possible narratives she could create, but somewhere along the way we forgot to treat them as the unique, separate stories that they were. We mashed them together into something unrecognizable, falling prey to that old mistake of trying to do too much, too fast. We got a lot of rejection letters.
But, we also learned a lot. And on that note, I’ll let Hannah step in to share some of our hard-earned wisdom….
Hannah Brencher: I have a deep desire to please everyone. Which, as a writer, I’ve found can be a major hurdle.
I first realized this shortly after I signed with my agent. At the start of the book writing process, I had a clear picture in my head: I would write a memoir. And I knew exactly how it would unfold from chapter to chapter. But somewhere between conception and putting pen to paper, I started to entertain other people’s ideas. I invited more opinions in. I listened so much—too much—to outside comments that I ended up creating something that was very distant from the original idea set in my heart. Eventually, I realized I was trying to write and to sell a book I didn’t love or care enough about. I remember thinking that this project felt so different from what I set out to create in the first place.
So, I guess it wasn’t really a surprise when we were met with pushback when it came time to submit the book. Editors couldn’t see the vision. They couldn’t understand the need to tie in so many elements. I faced rejection as a result of trying so hard to fit everyone’s ideas into one creation.
The world doesn’t need a book that
tries to be everything to everyone.
In the end, I pulled back and set off on the journey to create something that felt truly genuine to me: a memoir. It wasn’t going to please everyone. It would never encompass the ideas of each person I came across. But it would be true to me. And it would be a clearer and more cohesive book once I stopped trying to hit whatever targets people told me to go after.
You have to find your own targets. That’s been the biggest lesson in all of this: if you don’t know your own target, you will always be looking for people and things outside of yourself to give you one. The world doesn’t need a book that tries to be everything to everyone. It needs simple, beautiful works that serve their own purpose to those lucky enough to come across them.
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Hannah Brencher is a writer, national speaker, and founder of the global organization The World Needs More Love Letters. She is the author of If You Find This Letter: My Journey to Find Purpose through Hundreds of Letters to Strangers (Howard Books, March 2015). For more information about Hannah, visit her website.
Mackenzie Brady is a literary agent with New Leaf Literary & Media. She represents a mix of narrative non-fiction and young adult fiction.