The Publishing of a Memoir, Perspective by Leah Wells, Part 2 — Free Book Giveaway

by Matilda Butler on February 2, 2016

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #222 – Memoir Writing – Matilda Butler


Leah Wells and her publisher have selected three winners to receive a free copy of her memoir. Each of you wrote intriguing and meaningful comments. Consequently, there are three winners instead of the promised two. And the winners are:

Johnine Simpson
Carol D’Agostino
Sara Eigen-Baker

We thank you all for your comments and invite you to participate in future comment contests at

Leave a Comment, Be Entered in the Book Giveaway Contest

Note: Be sure to leave a comment below to enter the book giveaway. One person will be chosen to receive a free copy of Leah Wells’ new memoir in which she journeys farther into the Bronx and deeper into herself than she’d ever been–all in the pursuit of a job. If you left a comment last week, be sure to leave another one below to double your chance of winning. Two books are being given away, one for each set of comments.

We want to thank Leah Wells and her publisher, Heliotrope Books, for this generous gift to our readers.

NOTE: Missed Part 1? Here’s the link to the first article by Leah Wells. And remember, you can enter the her comment contest in both Part 1 and Part 2. The contests are still open.

How On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start Was Written and Published

By Leah Wells

After my first book, Games That Sing, was published in 2011, I began envisioning a longer memoir about teaching music. It was difficult—I’d say impossible—to find time to organize my many notes, to comb through the stray papers and scribbles I’d deposited into my son’s old Spiderman backpack for over a year.

My sister, Naomi Rosenblatt, who worked in book publishing for twenty-five years and now owns an indie press, Heliotrope Books, suggested that we go on a retreat. “The only way we’ll organize this material,” she declared, “is away from New York and the distraction of our lives.” Ironically, I had to escape daily life in order to write about it.

We ended up in the Bahamas for a week with two novelists, Richard Bausch and Lisa Cupolo, and three other writers. When not in the workshop, we transposed my notes into Word and Naomi created an outline for the book. I felt too close to the material, and probably could not have done so myself. Lisa Cupolo, formerly a publicist at HarperCollins in Canada, helped edit my introduction and first chapter. She and her husband Richard, who conducted the workshops, greatly encouraged my project and style.

Since my pitch was nonfiction, I did not need a finished manuscript for agents or publishers: only the outline, and a sample chapter or two. Back in New York, Naomi pitched the book to a couple of agents, to no avail. They claimed they didn’t “know how to sell” my manuscript.

“I thought that was their specialty,” Naomi fumed, and submitted my proposal to a medium-sized press. “This is the best narrative nonfiction I’ve read in years,” the senior editor proclaimed. “I would do it in a heartbeat. But I don’t like children.”

Naomi then offered it to an editor who had recently given birth and worked at one of the conglomerates. We hoped she’d be fond of children. Again I heard how terrific my writing was, but this publishing professional announced that she did not know “how to sell” such a book. It seemed that children, once a mainstay of life and society, had become a niche market. It seemed that a trade book need not be well-written, but only easy to sell, and preferably about a topic the senior editors fancied.

By 2013 we faced a zero-sum game: Top professionals were thumbing up my writing, but none wished to publish it. I wondered what would make a book more sellable. If I added something practical, like the activities in Games That Sing, then maybe parents, teachers, and caregivers—that obscure, “niche audience”—might buy my book with this added value.

“Like Leda’s book,” I told Naomi, referring to local food author Leda Meredith’s debut memoir with recipes that Naomi had published in 2008. “I’ll do a memoir with classroom exercises,” I said, and Naomi replied, “I’ll publish it.”

Then the hard work began. For the next eighteen months, I wrote. Naomi advised me to summarize and skip forward in time, but that is not my method. I had to get it all out, using my scribbled notes as prompts, recalling every detail I could and committing it to the page. I knew this intensive stream of consciousness would not necessarily comprise the final book. But I had to write the first draft in my own way, or the flow would stop. Naomi and I agreed that I would “write long,” and then I’d entrust her to edit liberally.

“You’ll have to part with darlings,” she warned. “I’m ready,” I told her. I wanted the book to appeal to readers. I would do what it took.

By the time I finished, it was summer of 2015, and my sister was nervous. She knew how long and hard I’d worked on the manuscript. “In subtracting,” she said, “I will aim to enrich.” It seemed counterintuitive, but as Mark Twain said: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.” As it happened, my sister trimmed my 400 pages down to 240. Yet somehow, the residue of what she’d excised still shines through. That is a kind of miracle and now we sometimes laugh, and say to each other: “We did it.”

We didn’t do it alone, though. My wonderful publicist, Sue Havlish, suggested changes as On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start was being developed. I showed the manuscript to colleagues in education and family services, and to friends. Some critiques were harsh: “too much about the Bronx,” “too much slang,” “don’t know what this is–an educational primer or a memoir.” To the last question, Naomi answered, “It’s both, a cross-genre book.” Mixed category books are a specialty of her press, Heliotrope Books.

Last but not least, we called upon my father, “Dr. Grammar,” Professor Emeritus from SUNY Albany. He devoted a week to refining my grammar and usage. My mother also read it, and she was easier on my style. A few saints proofread, and Naomi made sense of their respective input.

Now that it’s published, we’re getting kudos from some tough customers. Discerning friends rave, “I’m devouring it.” Strangers say they feel like they “know” me. A man I’ve never met wrote a stunning piece in Neworld Review. Our cousin who plays oboe in national symphony orchestras wrote, “The ‘ingot of cheese!’ The ‘intoning of the theme from 2001 Space Odyssey every time … the refrigerator door is opened!’ For this and a hundred other phrases, I love this book!”

The hard work has paid off.

I am finally ready to discard all the notes from that Spiderman backpack my twenty-year-old son hasn’t used in years.

Leah Wells memoir authorLeah Wells is a writer, teacher, performing musician and singer. For over 20 years she has studied and taught stringed instrument techniques, from flamenco guitar to bluegrass banjo. Leah performs regularly in the tri-state area, with The Linemen and other folk ensembles. In 2011, she performed at Lincoln Center’s Library for The Performing Arts in a special tribute to Irish music.

Leah has taught music and movement to preschoolers in Head Start Centers, YMCAs, summer camps and private schools since 2003. The mother of two sons, Haskell and Simon, she brings her understanding of children and empathy with music educators to her original classroom material.

Her memoir On Another Note: Making Music at Head Start was published earlier this month and is available through Amazon.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Carole February 6, 2016 at

Leah, Thank you for this article. Interesting. It gives me a lot to think about.

Leah Wells February 10, 2016 at

Hi Carole, thank you for reading and thinking! Good things come of that…

Mary Enright-Olson February 10, 2016 at

Lovely description about collaboration, persistence and belief in your work. Love this line about letting go “You’ll have to part with darlings,”
I look forward to reading your book.

Judy Lawless February 10, 2016 at

Thanks for the insights into the challenges of getting a memoir published, and how you overcame them. Useful information for all who are working on memoirs, and the hints of what your story is about are intriguing.

Mary Patterson February 11, 2016 at

Just what I needed- working on my own. Thank goodness for all the advice and help you received in getting it published. Anxious to read it.

Leah Wells February 12, 2016 at

Thank you, Judy, Mary E. and Mary P., for your supportive feedback. Getting a memoir published is challenging…and making it worth reader’s time is challenging. I look forward to all of your responses to my book.

Rachel Van Den Bergen February 17, 2016 at

I have one autobiography published. I’ve completed another and I’m looking into entering the memoir competition if it’s still open.

Johnine Simpson February 29, 2016 at

Thank you for sharing your process in writing your book, your vision of it in completed form, and your obvious willingness to accept and profit from various critiques of all or parts of the manuscript as it came to fruition. You are blessed to have both a sister and parents who are involved, invested, and caring enough to critique and assist with love and hope. Congratulations on publishing your book. I wish you well with its sales. Hopefully it will benefit early childhood teachers and thereby the little folk in their care!

Lynn Jarrett February 29, 2016 at

Thank you for your comments. I have been gathering bits and pieces for years. I am overdue for getting all of it on paper and in some sort of order.

Leah Wells March 3, 2016 at

Thanks Rachel, Johnine, and Lynn for your comments and support. Yes, Johnine, family support of my writing and publication has been an incredible blessing. And I sincerely hope that this book will assist early childhood music teachers.

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