Miri and I dutifully wrote in our CaringBridge Journal almost every day during Gabriel’s five-month NICU stay. We updated relatives and friends on how Gabriel was doing. Also, we described the really cool systems and procedures that go on in the NICU — we come from families of engineers, so the “how stuff works” posts were read with great interest. My wife is a zookeeper, so she could compare things that went on in the NICU to the way endangered species at zoos are raised.
“You should write a book!” numerous people told us. “You already have, with all these journals.” Indeed, by the time we left the NICU, we had written about 40,000 words, or about 160 book pages. We’re almost there, right?
Book-writing is hard. Even though I have training as a writer, having been a newspaper reporter earlier in my career, I have discovered that the process of getting a publishable book to market is far more complicated than I ever thought. I have submitted proposals to dozens of agents and editors, all of whom who said no, and I went to a writer’s conference in Seattle last summer that only cost $495 to attend. There I found more agents and editors, all of whom said no, but I found a developmental editor whom I could pay to read the manuscript and help me figure out what was wrong with it, and then I could send a stronger proposal to agents. “I pay the editor?” I grumbled mightly. And I paid the editor.
One of the first questions people in the publishing world asked me when I told them about this book idea was, “So this is a memoir?” And I said no. A memoir, I thought, was Bill Clinton or George Bush reflecting on his time in office and telling everyone more detail than they ever wanted to know about how they think. Memoirs had boring titles like “Decision Points,” I thought.
The book we had written was different, I said. We included journal entries from Miri and me to show the different perspectives of mother and father, and we also included educational sections later on how NICU care works, how it developed, and specific bioethcial dilemmas posed by a micropreemie. For example, our son was nearly denied care because he was born at 22 weeks and 6 days of gestation, and the hospital said they only resuscitated babies at 23 weeks or later. We included all sorts of references to scientific articles that we looked up at the medical school library that would make all of our scientific relatives very proud of us.
When I told people about this, people with experience in publishing asked, “So are you going to self-publish this?” I’m not super-experienced in publishing myself, but I do know what that means — your idea will never fly, so let me divert you to self-publishing so I don’t have to come right out and tell you that your idea will never fly.
And then there is another question from editors and agents I have come to thoroughly hate: “What is your platform? Who are your loyal followers who would buy the book the day it came out?” Or to rephrase this another way, “We want you to be famous before you try to sell a book.”
My answer to this was “I’ve got 120 followers on Twitter, and I’m a blogger at Preemie Babies 101.” This did not astonish them.
After all of this, I decided to listen to the developmental editor. She took a look at my manuscript and told me that I had sent her three books badly integrated with each other — my journals, Miri’s journals, and the educational sections, and I really needed to pick one book and write it. And, she explained what a memoir really was. It was a novel that actually happened. It’s primarily about a main character, the author, and it’s about the author’s growth and change through an experience. You have to illustrate what’s going on through scenes, and you have to show, not tell, what happened and how you felt. It’s got a question that is asked at the beginning and not answered until the end. It’s not about the baby, it’s about you.
“Argh!” I said. “No, it’s about the baby and all of the amazing stuff he did in living through this experience.”
“No,” she said, “genre is about meeting reader expectations, and they expect characters to develop.”
Not wanting to self-publish, I decided to give in and turn it in to a pure memoir, which is, I think, going to be the genre that most preemie parents are going to pursue if they want to be authors. I removed the educational sections, and I asked my wife if I could change most of her journal entries to make them sound like they came from my perspective. She was fine with that. She did not want to revise them herself because she had a hard time just thinking about what went on back when we thought we were going to lose the baby.
Thus, my wife got dropped as a co-narrator and turned in to a character. Her plot arc is going to be getting to the point where she did not feel badly that all her zookeeper friends got to be present at the birth of an endangered Sumatran tiger but she did not because she had to be in the NICU all the time with her baby. My plot arc is going to be whether I am really a father — it’s all machines and nurses taking care of my baby in the NICU. When the baby is 17 months old and expresses his disapproval when I leave the room and intentionally vomits, I can then say, “yes, I am really a father.”
And maybe I will really be a published author some day.