from fiction to memoir–how and why The Peace Corpse was written

Before I left for Africa, I had already made up my mind that I would write a story about my experiences as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My writing began during the first two months of my stay in Korogwe, Tanzania. It helped me to cope with the transition and helped put things into perspective.

My original plan was to write a fictionalized version of my adventures. As my time in Africa progressed, the things that happened to me became stranger and more unbelievable. I eventually switched to nonfiction because I felt that the actual events were at risk of being perceived as poor, overdone plotting by an amateur writer.

That’s how my memoir, THE PEACE CORPSE, came to be.

Returning to America in December of 2004, I figured I’d finish writing as quickly as possible. But life got in the way. I finally completed the book in March. Of 2011. On the plus side, I finished the book on the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps as an organization, and that was kind of cool. It even had exactly 50 chapters, which was…a complete coincidence.

Once my friends and relatives help me fix all the typos, I started submitting it to literary agents. The responses I got were less than inspiring. They all said that there’s just no market for a Peace Corps memoir written by someone who isn’t famous. No matter how awesome or funny it is. And who doesn’t think feeding lizards to unsuspecting houseguests is awesomely funny, right?

The failure to get agented led me to the self-publishing route. I knew a little about it, and I’d read that some self-published authors were pretty successful. After all the trouble of writing it, I figured that I might as well put it out there and give people a chance to read it.

Interestingly enough, the actual process of self-publishing was fairly simple. I basically got all the useful information from various blogs, and after a couple of weeks, I had it properly formatted and uploaded to various bookselling sites. And people did read it. About 15 people per month.

So…the literary agents were right. There’s not a big market for my book. Plus, I realized that almost every volunteer had the same idea–if the multitude of existing Peace Corps books are any indication.

But mine’s the funniest. Trust me. Well, I bet it’s in the top five, anyway.

Of course, the cover might have something to do with the sales. Mine pretty much sucks. I designed it myself, and it really shows. Now, would I do it differently if I had to do it all over again?

Yes.

For starters, I’d keep it as fiction. Still using the first-person POV and with the same humor, but I’d have more freedom to explore plots and subplots without being constrained by events that actually happened. Also, I could write about things I was afraid to write about in a nonfiction book for fear of embarrassing anyone. All I have to do is disguise the characters sufficiently.

Secondly, I’m not knocking self-publishing, but I wouldn’t do it that way again. To me, the keys to success seem to be (besides it being a great book) frequency and nature of promotion, number of books published, and reader perception. When it comes to promotion, self-promotion has its limit. And just as agents don’t want to work with a one-trick pony, readers don’t want to invest themselves in an unknown and untested author of a single book. Most importantly, a book from an established publisher shows that it does meet some minimum threshold of quality.

Plus, at least with a traditionally published book you’re guaranteed to get decent cover art and an editor.

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