FriendStories: from idea to launch

This is part of the Bittersweet Book Launch case study, where Dan Blank and Miranda Beverly-Whittemore share the yearlong process of launching her novel. You can view all posts here.

By Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

Miranda Beverly-WhittemoreThe idea for my web project, FriendStories, grew out of Bittersweet, but I can’t claim credit for it. What happened was this: I was writing a book. People I know and like knew and liked that I was writing a book. So they’d ask me about it. Usually the question goes something like, “What’s it about?” In the early days of working on a book, this is a very difficult question to answer- much more difficult than it seems it should be- because I don’t really actually know all the way what the book is “about.” And yet, with Bittersweet, I knew enough to say: “It’s about two best friends from college- one of them’s a plain-Jane named Mabel, the other is her beautiful, wealthy roommate, Ev. Ev invites Mabel to spend the summer at her family’s estate on Lake Champlain, and that’s when things get interesting.” (There were a lot more “ums” in there when I first started answering that question).

In any case, what happened next was, to my mind, amazing, because it happened nearly every time, especially when a woman was the one who’d asked me to share the gist of my book.

Miranda Beverly-WhittemoreTo a woman, each listener almost immediately responded to my little spiel with: “I had a best friend in fourth grade and…” or “There was this girl I loved and hated in high school…” or “I love stories about best friends because my best friend and I have known each other since…”

You see what I mean? My unelegant, unpracticed little spiel was consistently spurring potential readers to spill their guts about their own best friends! Better yet, these stories ran the gamut from juicy to shocking to hilarious to heart-breaking. And better yet, each time I found myself on the edge of my seat, eager to hear what had happened next.

In my own reaction to these stories, and in these listeners’ reactions to mine, I discovered a hidden truth: that tales of girlhood friendship have something innately riveting about them. Maybe not to everyone, but definitely to me, and definitely to those friends whose stories spilled forth unprompted.

So I started thinking about how I might create a space for those stories to live.

Miranda Beverly-WhittemoreA couple months after I sold Bittersweet, I went into Crown to meet my editor. Also there was Molly Stern, the publisher of Crown. I was a little scared to meet her, but she made me feel right at home, most especially because one of the first things she said to me was, “You know, your book really got me thinking about my own girlhood friendships…”

Aha! There it was again. The publisher of my publishing house was sharing something as deeply intimate as her girlhood friendships with me because my book had made her want to! I went home that night with a resolve to create a place where such stories could live together. I really didn’t know anything about running (or building) a website, and so, I was grateful that when Dan and I started working together the following month, he agreed that this was a project worth pursuing, and assured me he’d be with me the whole time, holding my hand.

We spent last summer brainstorming about FriendStories- what we wanted it to look and feel like, what we wanted the experience of the reader to be. I knew I wanted it to be simple and clear- simply a place to share stories of girlhood friendships. Honest but respectful, and, in focusing on the story of a friendship (or a particular moment in a friendship), shedding a light on the person telling the story. Easy to contribute to; clear guidelines, but with room to grow.

Miranda Beverly-Whittemore Around that time, I started sifting through photos of my own childhood, and realized I loved the saturated, Kodak film, 1980’s color of those pictures. They were nostalgic, vibrant, and eye-catching. Next, we thought about how to talk about the project. Then I came up with a list of people I could ask to help.

This list has been very central to this project. I crafted a basic email, describing the FriendStories project, asking if the person in question would like to contribute, and laying out some clear guidelines. Over the course of the fall, I sent this email out to writers, yes, but also to non-writing friends- both in person, or via social media. People I knew I had a good chance of connecting with, who I thought would find something in this project that allured them.

And you know what happened? People wanted to contribute! People started to contribute! People promised to contribute!

Come January, we knew we had enough FriendStories banked to get us through the next couple months, with two stories being posted a week. The frequency with which we post may increase, based on how many new FriendStories are contributed over the course of the winter and spring; I don’t have the answer for that yet. And I’m not sure if the way we’ve gone about soliciting requests will be the way we do it in the future; eventually, my list of people to contact will run out, and hopefully by then the project will have been buoyed up by its own momentum, but if not, that’ll be something I’ll have to figure out.

Is this a promotional project for Bittersweet? Well, yes, to some degree. I’m five months out from publication, and I love the idea of this project growing over the course of the spring, offering people who might not know about me a chance to come at the book from another direction. But let’s put it this way: it isn’t just a promotional project. Its growth has been utterly organic, and that’s one of the things I’ve taken the most pleasure about with it- it feels as though it sprang into being because there was a need for it. Bittersweet, and how it urged women to talk to me, helped me identify that need. But FriendStories is what is fulfilling that need. It’s nice not to be alone with it anymore- I’m excited to see where FriendStories takes both me, Bittersweet, the readers and the contributors as the months pass!