The Orphan

or: The amazingly well-written, life-changing, relevant, engaging, exciting and immensely readable book proposal that the New York publishing machine determined that no one wanted to read.

There was a study published recently showing that rejection (romantic or otherwise) causes physical pain. I wholeheartedly agree.

Why? Last week, after a five-month sales push by my big-time New York literary agent, my nonfiction memoir book proposal was politely rejected by almost every New York/East Coast publishing house.

“It was an awesome, well, written and exciting proposal,” they said. “She an amazing storyteller,” they said. But … “No one wants to read about the victims.”

WHAT?! People don’t want to read about the victims? Wait, in the past year, I have read bestselling memoirs about teenage drunks, intensely poor itinerant families where the parents became homeless people, abusive addict parents, lots of dead people, battered wives with mentally ill husbands, and FLDS child brides/escapees.  And my story is the one that no one wants to read about? At least I’m funny.

The proposal isn’t a story about abuse. It was the story about fighting back and winning. It’s the story that journalists ask me about and write about ALL OF THE TIME. Apparently, someone wants to read what I have to say.

“But no,” they said. “The proposal is a page turner, but we’re too scared.”  (Okay, maybe they didn’t come out with the “scared” part.  But really, that’s what it is.)

It’s taken me a week to be able to talk about it without crying.

I Really, Kinda Sorta Know What I’m Doing

I am a professional writer. I have written hundreds of essays and op-eds (99% of which were for other people), press releases, fact sheets, marketing pieces, blog posts, newspapers articles, bios, and just about anything else you can imagine. I also have a number of unpublished novels, two of which were professionally agented and shopped around. Neither were published. I won’t even start on what I have re-written or heavily edited for other people.

My big dream is to be a mainstream published book author. And I never do anything half-assed.

But for years when someone said, “You should write a memoir about what you are doing now. It is so interesting,” my answer was a solid “no.”  I believed that I’d have no idea where to start. And, quite frankly, I refuse to write a depressing book.

I kept saying no until last summer. That’s when I finally relented and this story begins.

I am childhood friends with an awesome woman named Vicky Bruce.  She’s a part of the “Floral Park Mafia,” a group of kids who grew up in north Santa Ana, CA in the 1970s. She’s known me since I was about a year old. And she’s pretty cool.

She’s written two award-winning books (the latest of which just won the International Book Award) and fills her ample spare time making documentariesGood ones. The best part is that she’s a total nut. I love goofy, funny, smart people. Her parents have been my biggest fans.

Vicky contacted me after following my posts on Facebook and said “You MUST write a book.” And then when she asked why there aren’t any other survivor memoirs published by the big houses, the answers were simple: The stories are tragic; there is seldom, if ever, a happy ending; and the writing is not that great.  It’s rough, sad stuff.

Mine would be different, she assured me. There is a happy ending. There is intrigue. There is drama. I could talk about my travels to Europe, Alaska, Guam, and … Ohio. I could talk about the fascinating people I’ve met and the tragic stories they shared. I can talk about the documents. I can talk about my time on the lay review board. I can talk about the goofy stuff. I can humanize the crisis and make it accessible to non-Catholics and Catholics alike. I have a sense of humor and a global view, she said. Besides, we realized, church apologists could secretly read it on their Kindle without their bishop finding out. It’s perfect.

What really convinced me, however, was when she shot an email to her literary agent.  One of the other agents there jumped on the idea. He loved it and said he would represent the book. All he needed to see was my proposal.

And that’s when I broke out in hives: How the hell do I organize a memoir? Vicky stepped in. We talked and talked and talked. She came up with the direction, and suddenly, the book made sense. I started to write, and she started to edit. She yelled at me when I glossed over memories that were difficult, and gave me electronic high-fives when I wrote honestly. Then she edited some more. And more. And more.

I also swore her to secrecy. I didn’t want word to get out to my family and friends that I was working on a proposal. I’ve been down this road before, and I didn’t want anyone to know until the proposal sold.

We hammered out a 130+ page proposal document in about six weeks. We talked about Alaska and Guam, lay review boards and (the Caligula-esque free-for-alls where dress code regulations were simply a cover for the perverse sexscapades of some teachers and administrators at) Mater Dei High School. We talked about my parents, my friends and my son. We talked about Facebook. We talked about my redemption. And you know what, it was good.  It was really, really good. When we handed it to the agent, he loved it.  Then, he started editing. He worked long and hard on it, trusting in us and the proposal. It was going to sell.

When he was done with his changes, it was an even better work. We talked about the possibility of it going for auction. We talked about meeting with publishers. Not only was it a good story, but I could SELL it.

Publishers would embrace me, I believed, because I am a shameless self-promoter.  Other writers, filmmakers and documentary producers come to me – all of the time – for help to publicize their works about the crisis (for free) or share my contacts. I was ready to unleash a publicity MACHINE about this book, starting on the date the proposal sold. I was even talking to speakers’ agents and book publicists to augment my own publicity plan. The book buying audience was going to be so sick of hearing about my memoir, they were going to buy a copy just to get me to shut up.

Then the proposal went out, and we waited. And waited and waited. When the responses came, we were shocked: “It’s wonderful, but …” “I couldn’t put it down, but …” “She’s an amazing storyteller, but …”  When the second round of queries went out, the responses were the same. It was nothing like we had expected.

Then we got the really bad news: a Pulitzer-prize-winning author just sold his proposal about the stories of the attorneys who have represented victims – the “courtroom drama” a la A Civil Action.

I do not begrudge the attorneys. These men and women put their reputations, life savings and careers on the line to help victims. Were it not for them, I would not be standing where I am now. They are true heros. I know the book will be interesting reading, written by a great writer. But I also know this: you can’t understand the victims’ movement without hearing from the victims. The fact that the “safe” courtroom drama got the sale and my proposal was treated like a political hot potato is indicative to how victims have been treated by society throughout the crisis.

Now What?

And so … My proposal now lives in No Man’s Land. I feel like someone died. Vicky, the agent and I are going to have to sit down and really talk this through.

I’ve been asked more than once: Why not self-publish? If I were an established author or celebrity, that would be a great option. But it simply won’t work for me. I need something that the survivors’ movement also requires: the stamp of legitimacy that a large publishing house provides. I also need the wider audience and the channel marketing capabilities that a large house gives me. And honestly, this book is too good to get lost.

We are looking at other options. We can find a new champion for the proposal (maybe a lead editor at Random House is reading this post right now and will email me and ask for the proposal). Perhaps I can publish it as a series of essays in an ebook format. I can sit and wait for the buzz to grow over the other book and hope than an editor out there will be looking for a memoir. I can ask everyone I know to ask everyone they know …

Maybe I can start a Facebook fan group and get 10,000 people to promise to buy the book in an ebook format for $4.99. Then, perhaps a publisher will realize that people DO want to read my book (and won’t want to stick their head in the oven and turn on the gas when they are done).

And the book WILL SELL, because no one will work harder, touch more people, do more speaking engagements, contact more media outlets, write more op-eds and get her face out there like I will. I’ve done it before. And I won’t wait until the book is done. In fact, I may just start tomorrow. Because I’m not sad anymore. I’m mad. And a mad Joelle is a very productive Joelle.

Life is about risks. I’ve taken a million of them. Now, I need someone to take a risk on me.

5 thoughts on “The Orphan

  1. You are an inspiration, Joelle.
    I live in the Philippines where 85% of the population is Catholic.
    We wish to have someone like you.

  2. I’m writing too and I know how it feels to be turned down but this is a really really competitive business. Don’t give up. Just that, don’t give up.

  3. Well, just so you know, I would definitely buy a copy. Probably more than one, if I’m going to be completely truthful. I hope that this project of yours goes forward.


  4. Being privy since the inception of the proposal and having read it and hearing the subsequent news of rejections, Barb and I are dumbfounded . This is a magnificent work and must not remain an orphan. We applaud Joelle and we are sure that getting mad and productive will bear fruit in some form.

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