Back in the day (I won’t tell you the year!) Joel Drucker and I met in a class at UC Berkeley. He went on to build a career as a writer, most extensively in the world of tennis, where he’s the author of the book, Jimmy Connors Saved My Life, and currently writes most frequently for Tennis Channel.
He recently penned a memoir about his relationship with his late wife Joan, and turned it into an Amazon Kindle Single called Don’t Bet On It . Kindle Singles are shorter than normal books (between 5,000 and 30,000 words,) and longer than traditional magazine pieces.
Fascinated by this new short form opportunity in publishing, I wanted to share with you his process for getting his personal story down onto the page, and how he navigated this new frontier of online publishing.
What inspired you to write Don’t Bet On It?
My wife, Joan Edwards, died on September 2, 2010. It was devastating. We had been together 28 years, our romance starting the summer after I’d graduated college.
Joan had a precocious awareness of mortality. At 16, her mother died. A year before we met, her father died. A month later, Joan was diagnosed with a disease called lupus. Though lupus patients do not necessarily die young, certainly they must be attuned to matters of health. In certain ways, at once big and small, aspects of health and care set the tone for our romance. It was beautiful, and gave our love its own distinct brand of urgency and affinity.
Within a month of Joan’s death, I booked myself a talk to a lupus support group. One of the major common ground she and I occupied was humor. We were both smart-asses, our marriage a mix of private joke, slumber party and therapy session. I wanted the world to know this – perhaps to let others know what I’d had, perhaps also to preserve it forever, perhaps also to continue to engage with the person I’d loved so much.
The working title, “Love & Laughter on the Fault Line.” Aspects of that talk, right down to jokes we made about Neil Armstrong, car accidents and the many drugs Joan took, were all part of it. That talk in turn inspired me to write this book.
What was your writing process— How did you go from idea to finished manuscript?
The first draft was written like a collage – taking the last week of Joan’s life and juxtaposing it with flashbacks of our time together. It was more than 30,000 words long.
Though I have always been very guarded when it comes to sharing drafts, in this case I thought it would be good to get feedback; that is, from someone I deeply trusted. Elizabeth Kaye is a highly accomplished writer – she wrote many lengthy stories for Esquire, Rolling Stone and others – who had become a friend. Even more, Elizabeth grasped my sensibility, the authors I admired-sought to emulate and the kind of stories I wanted to write. She’d read my previous book, “Jimmy Connors Saved My Life,” and I felt she could really provide useful feedback.
Elizabeth told me that the piece about Joan needed a significant revision, that the collage-like approach could work but perhaps there was the need in many areas for a more linear structure. Of course, initially I didn’t want to hear that. But then, gosh darn, I saw she was right.
So I took every scene in the piece – 166 occurrences – and wrote down the topic and a few notes about each on a 5×8 index card. Then I laid out the cards on my dining room table and began the process: reshuffle, determine a new order, cut, as well as identify new transitional areas. This of course is hardly seamless. And of course, as Elizabeth likely knew, it would also help me prune.
I then had Elizabeth read the next draft. More suggestions. More refinement.
And then, my Amazon editor, Ali Castleman, also made a number of cuts.
It’s now down to 18,000 words. Hopefully, it’s as lean as an Olympic swimmer.
What was your biggest challenge in writing a memoir?
There was frequently tremendous emotional fallout. I would work on the piece for a few hours in the morning and then, hours later, find myself feeling anxious. Had I been rude to the supermarket clerk? Did I run a red light and would I get a ticket and soon lose my license? On a few occasions, I would put away the manuscript for months. There were also times when I felt physically sick – headaches, digestive pain, heartburn and more.
Though I have never much believed in the concept of suffering for the art, I have indeed gotten sick while writing both of my books.
What is a Kindle Single, and why this form for your book?
Amazon Kindle Singles seeks to publish pieces in the 5-30,000 word range – the ultra-long magazine piece, the novella, the lengthy essay.
Hey, like any writer, I wanted this to be a physical book – a tidy piece with an elegant cover that would occupy those bookstores I so love to visit.
But 40 agents passed on it, for all sorts of reasons. Many were nice. Others were brusque. Such is business.
In the summer of 2015, a colleague I work with at Tennis Channel, Jon Wertheim, gave me the name of someone to contact at Amazon Kindle Singles. I sent a short intro letter explaining my concept and the editor said he was interested.
It’s been very nice to be accepted by Amazon and terrific working with my editor.
Top 3 tips on navigating the world of publishing right now?
My sense now is that the book publishing world is in deep flux. The Internet has made it possible for so many people to bring a book to life. But is that a good thing? What kind of quality standards can exist? Then again, who even defines quality?
I’m not sure if my tips are contemporary or eternal, but here’s what I’ve learned:
1-Hone your craft. Do not think that your great experience, or story, or famous contact means anything. To that end, think more about telling a story powerfully in as few words as possible. Refinement is everything.
2-Network selectively. Good as it is to make connections with agents, editors and publishers, I think this can be a rabbit hole – and in large part, an illusion. A writer is not a real estate agent, seeking to build a community that in turn will trigger success. A writer is a craftsman. Again, work on your technique. Write a short piece. Read constantly. And when you do meet people in the business, send thank you notes.
3-Thick skin. Don’t take rejection personally. It happens to everyone. And at least as I saw, there’s a mild panic in the writing world about what kind of formats, structures and topics will work best in the years to come.
So how can you take Joel’s process and tips and use them as you move forward with your own writing project?
Take Action! If you’re writing a memoir, experiment and get some feedback to find the most powerful way to tell your story. Use this feedback to polish and trim your pages. Consider the best way to publish your book. Traditionally? Is Amazon the best route? Navigate the publishing world smartly– work hard on your craft, know that rejection will come and keep moving forward.
What’s so great about Joel’s experience, is to see how he came to the idea for writing the book, made it happen through hard work, then found the perfect form for it to be presented to the world.
Do the same for your book or memoir!
If you’re interested in reading a terrific Kindle Single, here’s the link to Don’t Bet On It.
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