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Using Food to Flavor Your Fiction, by guest blogger Stacy Allbritton — and yet another writing contest!

July 4th, 2012

Happy Independence Day, campers!

Normally, I would open with a few remarks on the occasion — observing, perhaps, that the actual vote on independence in 1776 occurred on July 2, not July 4 — but given that I actually intended to post news about the summer’s second Author! Author! writing competition a good a week and a half ago, who am I to quibble about dates? Just because the nastiest head cold ever to visit a North American intervened between the announcement of our first literary contest of the season, aimed at adult writers and writers for the adult market, and what I had planned as the next day’s revelation of the rules for a competition devoted exclusively to young writers and those that write YA doesn’t mean that I should equivocate for a few more seconds now.

Except that I should say a few words about today’s guest blogger — and, not entirely coincidentally, the author that is going to be graciously giving away some copies of the charming middle-grade reader novel you see above. Since her book’s protagonist is in fact a writer who is herself very young when the story begins, young Marie has inspired me to create a contest that not only rewards good writing in YA, but great writing by writers currently in middle school and high school.

Well might you champ at the bit. Trust me, though, today’s guest blogger is here to help you polish up the writing skills you will want to have bright and shiny before you construct a contest entry.

Continuing what would have been a logical progression to self-evident to require explanation had my sinuses permitted me to post these two contest announcements back-to-back, I asked today’s guest, Stacy Demoran Allbritton, author of the recently-released The Diary of Marie Landry, Acadian Exile, to share her thoughts on how to write well about food in fiction. Not just in any fiction, mind you: in prose intended for young readers.

I see some of you purists scrunching up your noses, do I not? “But Anne,” you cry, “isn’t good, showing-not-telling writing pretty much the same, regardless of the intended audience?”

Heavens, no, campers. Good writing takes its target readership into account, always.

And before anyone wrinkles so much as a single proboscis at me, let me hasten to add: no, that’s not sacrificing art to market concerns. It’s simply good writing courtesy to craft one’s novel in such a way that the reader will enjoy it.

While being familiar with the conventions and overall vocabulary expectations of one’s chosen book category is, of course, one of the first steps a writer serious about treating potential readers politely is to familiarize herself with what’s currently being published for that readership. (Conveniently, that also happens to be excellent marketing strategy, too.) For all stripes of YA, though, writers also have to be extremely sensitive to presenting age-appropriate vocabulary and situations.

Which is precisely why I asked Stacy to blog on the subject: she has taken some quite dark historical subject matter and transformed it into a debut novel I was completely comfortable giving my 10-year-old neighbor. That’s quite a trick. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

During the Great Upheaval of 1755, the British forced the Acadians to leave their homes in the Canadian provinces. After having lived in exile in Maryland for ten years, fourteen-year-old Marie Landry and her family prepare to join a mass exodus to Louisiana. In her diary, Marie describes the Acadians’ journey to Louisiana while simultaneously including the details of their removal from Acadia ten years earlier. This historically accurate account of Louisiana’s Cajuns depicts tales of hardship and friendship, anguish and hope. Because of their perseverance and faith, Marie and her loved ones are able to survive and find happiness in Louisiana. Illustrations enhance this engaging portrayal of human strength.

An intriguing bit of American and Canadian history to tackle for a young readership, isn’t it? Stacy does it both sensitively and surprisingly unblinkingly. I love it when YA authors respect their youthful readers’ intelligence enough not to sugarcoat tough reality.

She also did something quite clever on the vocabulary front: although the writing overall is age-appropriate, she peppered the manuscript with slightly higher-level vocabulary — and added a glossary of those terms to the back. I wish writers for the young would do this more often; one does not always have a dictionary handy at any age, after all.

The other reason that I blandished Stacy into writing on this particular topic is that her novel includes some actual recipes. Since I know that many of you that write about food in fiction have at least toyed with the concept of writing a cookbook, I thought it might be both fun and useful to ask her to show you the same recipe formatted to appear in a nonfiction manuscript and to show how she might write about the resulting foodstuff for a young readership.

Why might that particular distinction come in handy? Glad you asked. Once again, in the fine tradition of the Author! Author! Awards for Expressive Excellence, then, and as part of my ongoing quest to provide good writers with much-needed Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (which, let’s face it, is harder for young writers to accumulate), I am proud to announce:

The Make Us Want to Eat It Literary Competition of 2012

As I mentioned when I announced the previous contest for adult writing, although people experience life via all of their senses — sight, sound, taste, smell, touch — many, many of the manuscripts those of us who read them for a living see on a daily basis seem to assume that characters can only see and hear. Or that readers expect to know nothing about a character’s sensations except what an actor might be able to convey to us if we saw him playing that character on T.V.

But you’re a better writer than that, aren’t you? And you’re certainly a better reader.

Because I’m pretty confident that my readers are good at writing about what it’s like to be alive, I’m calling for young writers and adults that write for young readers to enter short scenes — anywhere from 2 to 8 pages in length — that present food in a manner that incorporates more than two senses.

Here’s the catch: the scene can’t take place in a kitchen — or at a dining table.

Why? Because I’d love to see you exercise your creativity, that’s why. That’s my idea of a proper reader-oriented spectator sport.

In order to give young writers more freedom to stretch those creative limbs, you may enter either fiction or nonfiction. (Sorry, adult writers: you may enter only YA fiction. You can always enter your memoir in this summer’s adult contest ) If you are entering memoir and don’t want to use your real name, it’s fine to use a fake one; just make sure that you let us know, so we announce the right name when you win.

Either way, no profanity, please — and please have all of your characters fully clothed. I want to keep this site accessible for young writers whose parents have set up content filters on their computers. So if you wouldn’t want your parents to find a YouTube video of you doing something your characters do, give it a pass in the entry, okay?

Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (hold your horses; we’re getting to those), but may have their scenes and accompanying synopses both published and critiqued in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire. And, if you’re a student, we’re going to recognize the teacher you feel has helped you most with your writing as well.

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult in order to discuss any aspect of writing. That means I will read up to 20 pages of your writing — a query? A synopsis? The opening pages of the manuscript you’ve been writing? — and call or Skype you in order to have a lovely, long talk about it. I’m also going to post your winning entry here on Author! Author! and tell everyone you know just how terrific your writing is.

First and second place winners will have their entries posted and critiqued on this blog.

Third place winners will receive copies of The Diary of Marie Landry, Acadian Exile

All winners will also be asked to nominate the teacher that they feel helped them most in their quest to become a writer. Choose carefully: if the nominated teachers agree, I shall posting their names, a short bio, and a photograph here at Author! Author!, thanking them publicly for having done such a good job with these students. The judges and I shall also be putting our heads together on a pretty fabulous certificate of appreciation, recognizing the teacher as one of the great encouragers of future authors.

And yes, I do mean all winners, even in the adult writers of YA category. You think their favorite teachers shouldn’t be recognized? I couldn’t disagree more.

Hadn’t I mentioned that my mother was not only an editor, but also my junior high school librarian? Or that my completely fabulous seventh-grade English teacher is still one of my heroes?

Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully, and post any questions you may have. And if you would like to see me walk through each and every requirement of contest entry, showing you step-by-step visual examples, all you need to is click here.

1. Write or select a scene no more than eight pages in length from your manuscript or manuscript-in-progress that best shows off a sense-based description of food.

How will you figure length? Glad you asked.

2. Pages must be double-spaced in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, or Courier., with one-inch margins and a slug line at the top containing your last name/title/page #.

All pages must be numbered, in accordance with standard format for book manuscripts. You’ll find examples of it in the guest post below. (And don’t worry — next week, I shall be showing you precisely what standard format would look like in a contest entry.)

3. All entries must be in English.

Whether you choose to write in American English, Canadian English, or U.K. English, however, is entirely up to you. Just let us know which — and make sure it’s spelled correctly.

4. The scene must center on food, but it cannot take place in a kitchen or at a dining table.

That should sound familiar, right?

5. The scene must include depictions of at least two human senses, but cannot include any profanity or references to sexual activity.

No exceptions. Humans have a lot of other senses. Remember, too, that the judges will be looking for a variety of senses to be addressed in the scene.

6. Polish your scene to a high gloss and save it as a Word document, as a .doc file

Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other formats, please. Please title the Word file your name and the abbreviated title of your book (Austen Pride & Prejudice), not just as contest entry or the ever-popular Anne Mini contest (The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 42 entries with one of the other file name.)

7. In a separate Word document, give your name, state (or country, if entering from outside the U.S.), age, name of your school (if you are enrolled in one), and e-mail address, as well as the category you are entering.

Telling the judges the category will save a lot of confusion. The possible categories are:

Category I: Fiction on food by writers currently attending or about to enroll in middle school

Category II: Nonfiction/Memoir on food by writers currently attending or about to enroll in middle school

Category III: Fiction on food by writers currently attending or about to enroll in high school

Category IV: Nonfiction/Memoir on food by writers currently attending or about to enroll in high school

Category V: YA fiction on food by adult writers

If you are entering Category V, please see Rules #8 and #9. Everyone else can skip to Rule #10.

8. If you are entering in the adult writer category, on the same page as the material in Rule #7, please include a 1-paragraph explanation of how the scene you are entering fits into the overall story of the book.

This is the only chance you’re going to get to set up the scene for the judges, so make it count!

9. If you are entering in the adult writer category, on the second page of the document described in #7, please include a synopsis of no more than 1 page, giving the judges an overview of the book’s premise, its main characters, and its central conflict.

Again, this synopsis must be in standard format. If you are unfamiliar with either standard format or how to write a 1-page synopsis, you will find explanations (along with examples) under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT and HOW TO WRITE A 1-PAGE SYNOPSIS categories on the archive list located on the right-hand side of this page.

10. Make sure that both documents are properly formatted: precisely as they would appear in a manuscript submission.

Part of the goal here is to help young writers learn how to submit their work professionally. If it is not double-spaced, in 12-point type, and featuring a slug line (Author’s last name/book title/page #) in each page’s header, the judges will not consider the entry.

11. Attach both Word documents to an e-mail.

Please include FOOD! and the category number in the subject line. Please also mention the category In the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.)

Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up. It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasant (like “Howdy, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. Just a nice habit for a writer to have acquired before starting to work with an agent.

12. E-mail the whole shebang to contest(at)annemini(dot)com by Sunday, September 30, 2012, at midnight in your time zone. If you are entering more than one category, please submit each entry in a separate e-mail.

Do I need to explain that the (at) should be typed as @, or that (dot) should appear as a period? Nah, probably not; you all understand why reasonable people don’t post their e-mail addresses online.

13. Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted ECQLC , the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality and quantity of the entry pool in any given category warrants.

That’s a fancy way of saying that if we don’t receive enough wonderful entries in one of the categories, we may not give an award for it. So you might want to urge your friends to enter.

Those are the rules! Please follow them closely. As I said, I shall be writing a post next week that goes over them in detail, with visual examples, but in the meantime, you might to bookmark this page. As well as “the one on which I provide examples of how to follow each and every rule. (Oh, you thought I would leave my young readers to guess? How little you know me!)

And seriously, please ask if anything at all seems puzzling. It’s actually very helpful to know what could use more explanation.

And do read the guest post that follows. As I said above, I think you’re going to find Stacy’s insights into food writing very thought-provoking. You might even want to ask her some questions in the comments.

One last word before we begin: my apologies about the blurriness of the page shots here; I had asked Stacy to show you all how to format a recipe in a manuscript — because, presumably, some of you would-be cookbook writers would like to know — but the shots she sent me were exceedingly blurry. No one’s fault, as nearly as I can tell. I’ve fixed them the best I can, but if you would like to see the details better, I would suggest holding down the COMMAND key and pressing the + key repeatedly to enlarge the image.

Take it away, Stacy!

When you think back on a Christmas dinner, a birthday party, or a crawfish boil, the festivities were centered on food, but the experience was so much more than food. They involved the people who shared that food with you; the circumstances in which you ate that food; where you were, and when.

That is what makes writing about food in fiction so flavorful — the story, the emotion, the people surrounding the fare.

The use of food and recipes in fiction can be a tool by which you define and develop your characters, and by which you move your plot forward. Food can also expose your readers to a different world. So, though the scene might be focused on dining, it is what the food brings to the table, so to speak, that opens the window to an entirely new dimension — both for your character and for your readers.

In my novel for middle-grade readers, The Diary of Marie Landry, Acadian Exile, the multi-layered capabilities of food propel the story and reveal character. For example, on the surface, the cook Bernardine teaches Marie some Creole recipes, but more than learning about the food itself, Marie is able to learn about another life and another way of life. Through these recipes, she is able to share a piece of herself as well.

Let me give you some very concrete suggestions on how to use food in fiction to achieve such goals.

1. Use memory

I think almost everyone recognizes how memories can resurface simply from the taste of something long-since forgotten, or from a smell that morphs us back to another time and place. The most notable example I can give (from Remembrance of Things Past) is Marcel Proust’s biting into a petite Madeleine cake after he had dunked it into a cup of tea — the way he remembered doing at his aunt’s house when he was a child. Memories flood the forefront of his mind based on that simple act of tasting a tea-soaked cake.

Anne here: the passage to which Stacy refers is so wonderful that I cannot resist breaking in to share it with you, at least in part. If you’re not in a frantically Proustian frame of mind, feel free to skip past everything in boldface: Stacy’s guest blog resumes at the first plain text.

“I put down my cup and examine my own mind. It is for it to discover the truth. But how? What an abyss of uncertainty whenever the mind feels that some part of it has strayed beyond its own borders; when it, the seeker, is at once the dark region through which it must go seeking, where all its equipment will avail it nothing. Seek? More than that: create. It is face to face with something which does not so far exist, to which it alone can give reality and substance, which it alone can bring into the light of day.

“And I begin again to ask myself what it could have been, this unremembered state which brought with it no logical proof of its existence, but only the sense that it was a happy, that it was a real state in whose presence other states of consciousness melted and vanished. I decide to attempt to make it reappear. I retrace my thoughts to the moment at which I drank the first spoonful of tea. I find again the same state, illumined by no fresh light. I compel my mind to make one further effort, to follow and recapture once again the fleeting sensation. And that nothing may interrupt it in its course I shut out every obstacle, every extraneous idea, I stop my ears and inhibit all attention to the sounds which come from the next room. And then, feeling that my mind is growing fatigued without having any success to report, I compel it for a change to enjoy that distraction which I have just denied it, to think of other things, to rest and refresh itself before the supreme attempt. And then for the second time I clear an empty space in front of it. I place in position before my mind’s eye the still recent taste of that first mouthful, and I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth; I do not know yet what it is, but I can feel it mounting slowly; I can measure the resistance, I can hear the echo of great spaces traversed.

“Undoubtedly what is thus palpitating in the depths of my being must be the image, the visual memory which, being linked to that taste, has tried to follow it into my conscious mind. But its struggles are too far off, too much confused; scarcely can I perceive the colorless reflection in which are blended the uncapturable whirling medley of radiant hues, and I cannot distinguish its form, cannot invite it, as the one possible interpreter, to translate to me the evidence of its contemporary, its inseparable paramour, the taste of cake soaked in tea; cannot ask it to inform me what special circumstance is in question, of what period in my past life.

“Will it ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has travelled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the very depths of my being? I cannot tell. Now that I feel nothing, it has stopped, has perhaps gone down again into its darkness, from which who can say whether it will ever rise? Ten times over I must essay the task, must lean down over the abyss. And each time the natural laziness which deters us from every difficult enterprise, every work of importance, has urged me to leave the thing alone, to drink my tea and to think merely of the worries of to-day and of my hopes for to-morrow, which let themselves be pondered over without effort or distress of mind.

“And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her in her bedroom, my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it; perhaps because I had so often seen such things in the interval, without tasting them, on the trays in pastry-cooks’ windows, that their image had dissociated itself from those Combray days to take its place among others more recent; perhaps because of those memories, so long abandoned and put out of mind, nothing now survived, everything was scattered; the forms of things, including that of the little scallop-shell of pastry, so richly sensual under its severe, religious folds, were either obliterated or had been so long dormant as to have lost the power of expansion which would have allowed them to resume their place in my consciousness. But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

“And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on color and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognizable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwellings and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.”

This very phenomenon happened to me as an adult one year at a Christmastime cookie swap. When I bit into a cookie that a colleague had shared, memories of my childhood summers spent with my grandmother in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi demanded my attention. So important were those memories that I never again wanted to forget the taste of that cookie — and everything that I associated with it.

I just had to have that recipe! I’m happy to report that my colleague was not stingy with her recipe, and to this day I still bake that cookie every Christmas.

Paulette Rittenberg, a columnist with The Times Picayune in New Orleans understands the importance of stories connected to recipes: her food column includes the stories inextricably linked to the recipes she publishes. Lucky me, she included my cookie story in her column years ago. Her column will give you many examples of using memories of food to fuel a story.

What recollections do you have that revolve around a particularly meaningful food to you? Ask yourself a series of questions, and listen to your answers.

Where did you first taste it?

With whom?

How old were you?

What did you think of it –- liked it, hated it?

Be as specific as you can, then put the most evocative details into your tale.

As for me, many of my fondest memories go way back to when I learned how to cook the summer I was twelve years old. Thinking that my maternal grandmother was ancient at sixty-two years of age, I figured that time was of the essence — I needed to get those recipes out of her head, and soon!

That’s not entirely true. My biggest motivations for learning to cook were that I loved spending time in the kitchen with her, and I thought that she was the greatest cook on the planet. The lagniappe — the little bit extra — that I got when learning to cook from my grandmother was all those wonderful memories that became fodder for stories.

I so enjoyed cooking with my grandmother that I based Bernardine the Cook on her and turned those memories into scenes in my novel. Cooking was a natural way for my protagonist, Marie, to make a new friend. It was also the catalyst by which she was able to adapt to a new environment, to feel less frightened in unfamiliar surroundings, and to learn new ways of doing things. Food is her path to finding familiarity and acceptance in a new environment, in a different culture.

Using your own memories of food can help reveal your character’s values and personality traits in an oblique manner. How? Take a look at my grandmother’s recipe for drop biscuits — delicious hunks of dough, I assure you — and then, later in this post, I’ll show you how I turn it into a story for young readers.

Quick note from Anne to those of you planning on using this page shot as a guideline for formatting a cookbook manuscript: many publishers prefer that at the submission stage, abbreviations be written out. Do check small publishers’ submission requirements before you send so much as a page; if they do not specify that the standard American measurement abbreviations are acceptable, I would advise writing everything out.

Try to think about the difference between this example and the next as a matter of audience. As a recipe, this page contains all of the elements someone would need to bake this delicious biscuit, right? But novel readers are looking for more than that: they want to feel they are there.

2. Use all five senses

Let’s face it — eating is more than just a gustatory experience. Not only do we taste it: we see food, smell food, enjoy (or not) the texture of food. And when we are in the kitchen, the sounds of preparing and cooking it can entice us. We anticipate the act of eating for more reasons than just filling our bellies.

Every scene with food does not have to include every sense, of course, but you should give your readers more than just a description of what is being served. Let them in on the sensory indulgence that your character is experiencing.

Another way to think of it is allowing the reader to feel what it was like to be in your character’s body at that moment. To take an example from my novel, is Marie’s first experience of seafood gumbo:

[Bernardine] leaned her ample arms on the table as she pushed herself up and said, “Come see. I’ll show you just what gumbo is.” She limped slightly as she shambled over to the hearth. Then she swung the kettle out of the fire and grabbed her paddle without taking her eyes off of the pot. As she stirred the thick soup, steam whirled past my nose, and I unconsciously said, ‘Ummmm,’ and closed my eyes to savor the luscious smell.

Anne here again: sorry to keep interrupting, but since Stacy’s example is taken from a middle-grade fiction work, I do feel compelled to point out that in YA or adult fiction, this passage would be considered a bit skeletal, as food descriptions go. Why? Well, let me ask you: if you had never smelled gumbo before, what specific scents would you think Marie was experiencing in this moment?

Not to criticize Stacy’s choice of example, of course: it’s a great illustration of something that aspiring writers are all too prone to forget, that the prevailing style standards and expectations for one type of fiction are not necessarily what prevail in another. I’m grateful for the opportunity to show that important reality so explicitly. I’ll shut up now.

Eating is a multi-sensory experience, and a universal one to boot, so use what is naturally at your disposal to develop your characters. And I’m not just talking about culinary knowledge. Remember that bare-bones drop biscuit recipe? Here it is again as the opening to a story I’ve entitled Camelia’s Christmas Day Biscuits.

Notice how Camelia’s senses are tickled throughout the experience. And why not consider it an example of how to properly format a manuscript, while we’re at it? (Yes, this is a short story, but for the sake of usefulness, let’s imagine that it’s a novel I plan to submit to an agent.)


3. Use Details

Writing about food is more than just description — it was bland; it was spicy. Where is it? On the table? How did it get there? Who put it there and why?

If you are going to write a recipe into the scene, remember that if it is your character who is conveying the recipe to someone else, you must make sure that the retelling of it on the page is appropriate for the character’s personality, age, gender, etc. A ten-year-old girl would not have the same recollection of baking gingerbread cookies as a world-renowned gourmet chef.

You can propel the plot (and/or teach the lesson) through detailed preparation, consumption, and discussion of a particular dish or recipe. In my novel, for example, I don’t just have Marie and Maman discuss beignets: my readers learn that Marie has a remembrance of them, but she needs Maman’s validation of this memory because she was too young to recall them vividly. She wants to be sure, because she has discovered a recipe that had faded from her family’s daily life because of circumstances beyond their control. She learns that she loved this confection when her family was intact, when life was full of promise for them. For her, poignant emotion is attached to the taste of a doughnut.

But she didn’t understand this until she had a conversation about it with Maman. It is much more believable for Marie — a teenager — to understand her feelings by accident through food than through calculated introspection.

To show you how this dynamic might play out on the manuscript page, let’s take a look at rest of “Camelia’s Christmas Day Biscuits.” As you are reading, ponder what you learn about Camelia and her grandmother through the story’s food details. What is their relationship? How old do you think Camelia is? What kind of man is her father? What, if anything, did she learn here — about herself, about baking, about life?


Did you notice how the answers the questions above were not addressed overtly on the page? Instead, they are revealed to the reader only through details. That’s the essence of showing, not telling.

4. Read!

When it comes to writing about food in fiction (or writing about anything, for that matter), my last piece of practical advice is to read, read, read. Find out what you do and don’t like on the page. Good readers make good writers. And how!

Stacy Demoran Allbritton, a New Orleans native, has always been fascinated by the multi-faceted history of her home state. She holds a B.A. in French and an M.A. in Romance Languages from the University of New Orleans, where she received the 2005 James Whitlow Award for Excellence in Romance Languages. She was a high school French and English teacher in Louisiana until 2009, when she decided to pursue opportunities in writing and travel. The Diary of Marie Landry, Acadian Exile is her first published novel. She is currently working on her second novel in the Louisiana Heritage series. Stacy and her husband divide their time between Monroe, Louisiana and Paris, France. You can visit her on her blog.

Writing a single mystery is difficult; writing a series can be murder by guest bloggers Stan Trollip and Michael Sears, better known to mystery aficionados as Michael Stanley

May 27th, 2012



Ah, the first long weekend of the warm months, a time perfect for relaxing with family, dawdling on a beach, and/or driving that 50+ miles that news organizations always seem so excited to report U.S. residents are planning on embarking upon this weekend every year. Or so I’m told. I wouldn’t know about it, really: writers tend to spend long weekends working on their books. If their kith and kin are out relaxing, beach-combing, or getting stuck in traffic, how would we know? We’re where we always are whenever we can grab a spare minute: wrestling with story, plot, and characterization.

God bless us all, every one.

In that spirit of laudable endeavor, I’ve planned a two-sided treat of all of you stalwart souls plugging away at your computers this weekend, rather than roasting something hefty on a gas-powered grill. Beginning today, I shall be posting a series of guest blogs by hardworking authors about the ins and outs of constructing a series — or making that always surprisingly tough transition from a first book to a second.

Emphasis on hardworking: in pulling together this series, I made a point of asking authors that had paid their dues, and then some. These are the folks that did everything right for years on end. In these days of ostensible overnight successes and surprise bestsellers by authors who have privately been working feverishly for ten or twenty years on craft, I think it’s vital for aspiring writers to understand that publishing is one of the few artistic endeavors where slow and steady not only wins the race in the long run, but tends to produce better books.

Case in point: today’s guest bloggers, the prolific writing team of Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, better known to awards committees around the nation as mystery novelist Michael Stanley, author of the acclaimed Detective Kubu series. Those of you who have been hanging around the Author! Author! community for a while may remember his earlier excellent guest posts on book tours, the publication process, and writing with a partner.

This pair is among the most dedicated mystery-writing teams on the planet — and lest you think that’s an exaggeration, let me hasten to add that they live in two different hemispheres, presenting collaboration challenges of which stateside co-authors can only have shuddering nightmares. Yet when I contacted Stan to beg implore ask him to contribute a post to this series on series-writing — and reached him the day before he and his collaborator were slated to complete their fourth novel — he not only instantly said yes, but asked how best to focus the post to assist those of you in the Author! Author! community currently writing series.

That’s what I like to see in an author: generosity, professionalism, and a strong understanding that being an author means being part of a writing community. One never stops paying dues to that community, admittedly, but the rewards are pretty delightful.

Something else I like to see in authors that this team has in spades, doubled and redoubled: a talent for keeping the reader constantly guessing. I’m not the only one to recognize this rare gift, either: their most recent release, Death of the Mantis (also available as an audio book at Audiobookstand), has been racking up accolades like Lincoln logs since its release last year. An entirely representative sample:

Shortlisted for Edgar — Best paperback original
Shortlisted for A Minnesota Book Award — Genre Fiction
Shortlisted for a Barry — Best paperback original
The Strand Magazine 12 best mysteries of 2011.
Library Journal top 10 mysteries for 2011

“Impossible to put down, this immensely readable third entry from (Michael Stanley) delivers the goods. Kubu’s painstaking detecting skills make him a sort of Hercule Poirot of the desert.”

Starred Review, Library Journal

“…a must-read for anyone who enjoys clever plotting, terrific writing, and a fascinating glimpse of today’s Africa.”

Charles Todd, New York Times bestselling mystery author

“…the best book yet in one of the best series going… I loved this book.”

Timothy Hallinan, author of The Queen of Patpong and A Nail Through the Heart

“…the best book I’ve read in a very long time…DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a fantastic read. Brilliant!”

Louise Penny, multiple award-winning author of the Inspector Gamache mysteries

Is this where I get to say I told you so? Seriously, in my humble, notoriously-critical-of-English-prose opinion, this is their best book so far. Take a gander at the publisher’s blurb:

Surrounded by a group of Bushmen, a ranger at a game reserve in the Kalahari is discovered at the bottom of a ravine. At first it is assumed that he fell, but it turns out that he was attacked. Although they claim to have chanced upon the injured man, the Bushmen are arrested.

Khumanego, Kubu’s Bushman school friend and now an advocate for the Bushman people, approaches Kubu and asks him to intervene. Khumanego claims the men are innocent and that their arrest is due to racist antagonism from the local police. Kubu investigates the case, resulting in the release of the suspects. But then another man is found murdered in a similar fashion — this time a visitor from neighboring Namibia. The body is discovered by another touring Namibian — an odd coincidence in Kubu’s view — motivating him to follow the clues to Namibia.

Then a third man is murdered and Kubu realizes that the key to the mystery must lie in the depths of the Kalahari itself. And there it is unraveled in a most unpleasant way…

One of the things I like best about Stan and Michael’s work — and in case I haven’t yet made it clear, there are many, many things I like about it — is the impeccable level of detail. These are the kings of show, don’t tell, and that, my friends, takes serious research in a series like this.

I felt some of you twitching at the mention of the r-word, but honestly, you would not believe how often our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees stories with mystery storylines (and, let’s face it, many, if not most, fiction storylines contain mysteries of one sort or another) that practically shout, “Hey, Millie, this manuscript needs a fact-checker!” Although experts abound in fiction, it’s actually rare that a protagonist wielding major credentials comes across as genuinely credible.

So says the lady with the Ph.D. Half the doctorate-sporting characters floating around the fictional ether make me cringe with embarrassment and make me want to mail my diploma back to the university. (Then I remember how very becoming my royal purple doctoral Renaissance cap is, and I resist. I worked hard to look that good.)

Speaking of looking good, I am also not the only professional reader that has noticed Stan and Michael’s incredibly nuanced attention to detail. Take a gander at some reviews by those who know stories about Africa far better than I do:

“The information on the Bushmen…is fascinating. Stanley does an exceedingly good job of presenting their plight and culture in an interesting and sympathetic manner. He also conveys the other characters, both black and white, in rich, multi-layered dimensions… a very readable novel that offers fascinating reflections on life in modern Botswana.”

The Canberra Times, November 5, 2011

“…DEATH OF THE MANTIS is a wonderful piece of work, a novel that is quietly perfect in every way…one of those rare books that transcends its rich genre. While there is a mystery at its core, it is also a study of the human condition, of the best and worst of people who do what they do for the best and worst of reasons. And Kubu is one of the best friends you will make between the pages of a book.”

Bookreporter, October 27, 2011

Yes, those are the kinds of plaudits of which every writer dreams, but let me tell you, it did not come without a tremendous amount of persistent, hard work. These are authors that built their writer’s tool kits, just as you are doing now, and my, has it paid off.

Bear that in mind, please, whenever you find your faith in your writing teetering a bit. It can be done. But you’re going to have to pay your dues — and it’s going to be a lot of hard work.

Join me, please, in welcoming a team of authors that help show all of us why this endeavor is so worthwhile. Take it away, Stan and Michael!

When we started writing our first book in 2003, we had no idea that it was going to turn into a series. We actually had no idea that we would even finish the book. This was our first venture into writing fiction, so we were complete novices.

Our initial idea had formed about 15 years earlier when we and four friends were on a flying safari in Botswana. (Stanley is a private pilot) One evening we saw a pack of hyenas attack and kill a wildebeest. By morning there was nothing left except the horns and hooves. Yes, hyenas eat the bones as well as the flesh.

That evening, over a glass or two of wine, we had the idea that should we ever want to get rid of a body, we would leave it out for hyenas. No body, no case!

When we eventually decided to write a novel with that as the premise, our opening scene had a professor (of Ecology) and a game ranger stumbling upon a hyena just before it finished devouring the remains of a human being. The perfect murder was no longer perfect.

You may wonder why there was a professor with the game ranger. Well, we’d been told that we should write what we knew. We were both professors, so we planned to have our professor be our protagonist. However, even in third world countries like Botswana, where our mysteries are set, the police need to be involved. So we sent a Botswana Police detective, David “Kubu” Bengu, from the country’s capital, Gaborone, to the remote tourist camp where the remains of the body lay waiting. By the time Kubu arrived at the camp, he had taken over as the main character.

This was our first lesson — authors aren’t always in charge of the novels they write. Sometimes, the characters take over.

Researching the Okavango Delta in a local dugout, called a mokoro

It took us three years to finish our manuscript. We quite liked it, so decided to try to have it published. After considerable research, it became obvious that we needed an agent to represent us. After some of the usual disappointments, we eventually found an excellent agent in New York. To our complete surprise, she sold the book, titled A CARRION DEATH, to HarperCollins. To our greater surprise, she actually sold a two-book contract.

Yikes! That meant we had to write a second book with the same protagonist, Detective Kubu.

By the way, Kubu means hippopotamus in his native language, Setswana, the common language of Botswana. Hippos are large, normally placid, and the most dangerous mammals in Africa.
So Kubu is a large man. He enjoys eating a great deal and loves good wine, when he can afford it. Surprisingly, he is also happily married. Like hippos, he is slow to anger, but when crossed is very dangerous.

Little did we realize what additional difficulties would surface as we started on the second book. Some became apparent as soon as we started plotting, others sneaked up on us at unexpected times during the writing. Here are some issues we discovered during the course of writing our second book, titled THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU in North America, and A DEADLY TRADE elsewhere.

First, the characters from the first book who carried over to the second would have to be adequately introduced for readers who hadn’t read A CARRION DEATH. But not overly so, otherwise readers who had started with A CARRION DEATH may be bored with the repetition.

This wasn’t easy. For example, in A CARRION DEATH, Kubu recalls a time when he went into the desert with a Bushman friend of his, Khumanego. It was Khumanego who taught Kubu to see what was behind the obvious — that what appeared to be a boring patch of sand was actually a world teeming with interesting flora and fauna.

It was this experience that caused Kubu to want to become a detective. In the second book, we obviously needed to provide new readers with the same background, but it had to be done carefully so as not to put previous Kubu readers off. This is obviously true of all characters.

Establishing a sense of place

Second, even though the action in THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU takes place only a few years after that in A CARRION DEATH, the characters needed to evolve. People who read a series in order want to see characters, particularly the protagonist, grow. They want to see the impact of important events on character and outlook. One thing we did in the second book was to put Kubu’s wife in danger, which allowed us to show a different side of Kubu’s normally placid character.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult, we had to remember all the habits, looks, interactions, etc., of the characters in the first book, so we didn’t contradict ourselves in the second. One of the unexpected revelations from our initial book tour was how well many readers knew A CARRION DEATH. We often felt that they knew more than we did — and they certainly remembered more of the detail than we did. So we realized that any slips would be caught immediately by our eagle-eyed readers.

We couldn’t afford to have Kubu look or behave fundamentally differently in the second book — the habits he had shown in the first book needed to carry over. Similarly he couldn’t interact differently with the people in his life — boss, wife, parents, and colleagues — except because of the ways he had matured. For example, because of the passage of time and because of his successes as a detective, the previously prickly relationship with his boss, Director Mabaku, has mellowed a little. Mabaku continues to be testy, but slivers of softness begin to show.

So, as we wrote THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU, we found ourselves going back to A CARRION DEATH time and time again to ensure that we were getting things right.


A supporting character in Chobe National Park

Then we started the third book, DEATH OF THE MANTIS, and most of the issues discussed above grew in importance. How could we make Kubu, for example, interesting to those people who had already read two books about him? Obviously, he continues to have success as a detective, but we did two things differently.

First, he is now a father — unexpectedly, I might say. This provided us the chance to bring out a previously untapped aspect of his character, namely how to deal with pressures at home, as well as pressures at work. It also allowed us to explore some quirks in his character. Specifically, parts of his traditional upbringing clash with his self-image of being a liberated New Age man.

Second, through his own fault, blinded by assumptions, Kubu finds himself in a situation that nearly ends his life. How does he handle himself as he realizes he has been a fool and, as a consequence, is likely to die?

We also realized that it would have been a very good idea to build a biography of the main characters as we wrote. That would have made it easy to find out such things as how much does he weigh, how old is he, what schools did he go to, what did his parents do before retirement, when did he get married, and so on and so on? It would also help us to keep track of when things happened in our characters’ lives, particularly Kubu’s. When did the various cases take place? What was he doing in his private life at the time? How long has he been married? Has he aged chronologically in our books as time has passed?

As we write, we have to know or have access to this sort of information, otherwise we make mistakes. And one thing I can promise is that there will be numerous readers who will catch the errors.

Actually, in order to make our writing easier, we are seriously considering trying to find someone who would prepare a biography for us, perhaps as part of a university project or paper. We think it would be an interesting project.

On the fly in pursuit of new material at Tsodilo Hills

We have just finished writing the fourth Kubu mystery, tentatively called POTIONS OF DEATH. Again the same issues arise. How does one write a book that will be the fourth in a series for some and the first for others? I think we now have shifted the balance a little towards first-time readers — the book has to be compelling on its own.

We hope, of course, that new readers will like it enough that they will go back and read the earlier books. Readers of our earlier books, fortunately for us, really like Kubu and his family, and look forward to new ones. So far, we have had no pushback that later books are repetitious.

How did we maintain interest for series’ readers in POTIONS OF DEATH? Among other things, we introduced the first female detective into the Botswana Criminal Investigation Department — a woman who is driven to bring to justice witch doctors who sell potions made from body parts of people they have killed. Her obsession is fueled by the fact that one of her childhood friends was murdered for just such a reason.

In real life, this is something that happens in parts of Africa, and prosecutions are few and far between because the clients are usually influential politicians or businessmen and because of the very real fear amongst the police that any witch doctor under suspicion would cast a spell on them.

In some ways, we have concerns about how the whole notion of witch doctors will be received by Western readers. We hope the story is not pooh-poohed. The reality is, of course, that witch doctors are real. And many, if not most, people in Africa believe in them, to the extent that there are instances of people dying purely because they believed a spell had been put on them.

Bushman painting at Tsodilo

The final issue that we keep in mind is not to be formulaic. We think interest in a series will wane if readers feel that our new books are basically the same as earlier ones. Our way around this is to change the backstory for each book. A CARRION DEATH is a mystery built on the back-story of blood diamonds. The background of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU is the nasty civil war in Rhodesia in the 1970s and the impact it had on neighboring countries. DEATH OF THE MANTIS puts Kubu in the middle of the fight for survival of the traditional Bushman peoples of Botswana, and POTIONS OF DEATH is about witch doctors who kill people.

These different back-stories allow us to move the location of the mysteries to different parts of Botswana, as well as providing totally different motivations and environments for the characters and stories.

We are about to start the fifth Detective Kubu mystery. This time, Kubu will be involved in the unpleasant results of a cultural clash between the local Batswana people and Chinese laborers who have been brought in to build paved roads. This is another issue of contemporary significance. Throughout Africa, the Chinese are bartering construction projects for access to Africa’s resource riches — oil, iron, coal, gold, diamonds, platinum, etc. Almost everywhere you travel in Africa today, you will see Chinese people. Our observation is that they do not integrate well or easily with local communities — a perfect back-story for murder and mayhem.


Tim and Vaughn Pearson with Nosipho Qolo showing off Kubu t-shirts

Our last comment about writing a series concerns the protagonist. He or she has to be able to keep readers’ attention over many books. If, after your first book, your main character hasn’t garnered your readers’ affection, or at least attention, you may find a series difficult to sustain.
Think about Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch, etc. It is almost always the case that it is these characters that make people continue reading the series, not the plots or stories, although these may also be appealing.

We lucked into Kubu — our readers have a real passion for him and can’t wait to find out about his next exploits, about his family life, and whether any of his diets will ever be successful. Please visit our website at http://www.detectivekubu.com to find out more about Kubu and his colleagues. You can also sign up for a newsletter we send out a few times a year.

By the way, if you are going to write a series, a website is an excellent way to keep faithful readers up to date with what is happening to their favorite character. Browse through our site to see how we provide additional information about ourselves, about upcoming books and events, as well as photos and stories related to our books.

We wish you good luck (which is usually needed) and good writing.

Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Bursting the boundaries: Author! Author! Rings True freestyle category winners John Turley and Fiona Maddock

March 21st, 2011


John, author of Macondo 20/20


Fiona, author of Infinite Loop

Welcome to the second group of winning entries in the Author! Author! Rings True literary competition. Today, I am delighted to be bringing you the extremely interesting top entries Category III: fiction that could legitimately fit into several book categories, John Turley and Fiona Maddock. Well done, both!

As shall be the case with those who carried off top honors in each of the Rings True categories, I shall be discussing page 1 and a synopsis with Heidi Durrow, author of the recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, now available in paperback. Heidi was generous enough to help me critique these intriguing pages.

We shall be approaching today’s winners slightly differently than our last set, however. Because the author’s personality (or, more accurately, public persona plus platform) is part of what is being pitched in memoir, we began the previous prize post with each winner’s bio, then moved on to her first page and synopsis. With fiction, however, the writer’s platform is significantly less important at the querying and submission stages — or, to put it as bluntly as our old pal Millicent the agency screener might, all the charm in the world won’t make up for a story that doesn’t grab her on page 1.

As they say in the biz, what matters is the writing. Oh, and the query’s being aimed at an agent or editor with a solid track record of handling books in that manuscript’s book category.

Why? Chant it with me now, long-time readers of this blog: since no agent represents every kind of book, it’s a waste of time to query those who do not habitually handle books like yours. Queries addressed to agents who do not represent the book category in question get rejected automatically; pervasive writerly fantasy to the contrary, Millicent will not make an exception for a submission that happens to be well-written. Therefore, selecting the appropriate category for your manuscript is vital.

As the gargantuan wail of writerly angst can attest, many, if not most, aspiring writers find this imperative a tad stressful. “What if I get it wrong?” they fret, and who can blame them? “I hate the idea of my work being pigeonholed.”

While this attitude is completely understandable, it also represents a fairly complete lack of comprehension for how books are marketed. All books currently published in the United States have been pigeonholed — that’s how the hardworking employees of Barnes & Noble and other brick-and-mortar bookstores know where to shelve them. It’s also how book buyers for those stores look for what to stock, how book distributors describe their current offerings, how publishers think of their lists, and how editors’ job descriptions limit what they can acquire. It thus follows as night the day that if agents want to pitch books, they must also adhere to the prevailing practice of assigning each client’s projects to already-established book categories.

Which is to say: a book category is nothing but a conceptual container, intended to help a manuscript end up on the desk of someone who can actually bring it to publication. Basically, these categories exist to save everyone time and effort, including the writer.

Still don’t believe me? All right, let’s take a gander at today’s category-defying entries. Image that you are sitting in Millicent’s desk chair: if you want to recommend these manuscripts to your boss, the agent, you will need to be able to tell her in a sentence or two what each book is about. You will also have to assign it to a category.

Everyone clear on the brief? Excellent. First, here is the first page of John Turley’s MACONDO 20-20. Ready, set, screen!

How did you do? Were you able to categorize it? Or — and I hope this is the case, given how much attention we’ve devoted in recent weeks to learning to spot small problems on manuscript pages — were you too distracted by these details to focus on book category?

On the off chance that some of you were not as distracted by them as Millicent would have been, here’s that first page again with the formatting, punctuation, and word use problems corrected. Notice how much correcting these minuscule matters changes how it reads.

Amazing what a difference those small revisions make, is it not? Now, we may return to our initial question: how would Millicent categorize this book?

If you’re having some trouble, step back and ask yourself an even more basic question: based on this page alone, is this book fiction or nonfiction?

Oh, you may laugh, but you would be surprised at how often it’s not possible to tell from an opening page — or how frequently queriers leave this pertinent fact out of their queries. But since there is no such thing in the publishing world as a book that’s sort of fiction, sort of nonfiction, it’s honestly not in a writer’s interest to make Millicent guess which a manuscript is.

Of course, I already know which, because I have John’s synopsis sitting in front of me. Before we get to it, however, let’s keep our nit-picking hats on and peruse Fiona Maddock’s entry. Much to Millicent’s relief, it’s substantially simpler to categorize — or is it?

If you found your focus shifting from questions of category, spelling, and even writing almost immediately, congratulations: you’re starting to read like a pro. (And if you instantly noted the missing slug line, you’re reading like Millicent.)

If not — which would be quite understandable in this case; it’s one heck of an opening — here’s that page again as a professional reader would have preferred to see it, so you may compare formatting and punctuation directly.

If you did not catch the problems the first time around, do not despair — you’re not only like the overwhelming majority of submitters, but very much like the general reading public. These days, we’re also used to the pervasive typos brought on by the rise in on-screen editing that small things like using dashes correctly or adding commas where they are necessary may well seem like piddling details, unworthy of contemplation.

To those who love literature and have devoted their lives to its publications, however, these seemingly small gaffes are far from irrelevant. In these days of dwindling staffs, prose-polishing is the writer’s responsibility, an essential part of the job description. These manuscript faux pas are also important because to a professional’s eye, they indicate that the author is either too busy to proofread her own work between revisions or just isn’t very attentive to detail.

Either way, the Millicent can predict pretty confidently from page 1 that the rest of the manuscript will contain similar problems — and thus that this writer would be more time-consuming (and therefore expensive) to represent than others with similarly compelling stories and talent. They know from long experience that if a writer does not consistently produce clean manuscripts, some luckless soul at the agency and/or publishing house will have to invest valuable hours in polishing the prose.

They also tend to suspect that a submitter who has not invested the time in learning the rules of standard format — which, lest we forget, people in the publishing world believe to be so pervasive that a writer would have to be deliberately avoiding in order not to apprehend them — is going to have difficulty following directions from an agent or editor. So while forgetting (or, more commonly, not being aware) that standard format requires a space at either end of a dash, or that dashes in manuscripts should be doubled, or that each page needs a slug line may be easy for an aspiring writer to overlook, to Millicent, it’s all part of the diagnosis of the submission.

I’m bringing this up not to chide today’s winners, but because I couldn’t resist the object lesson: even when the writing and the premise is this good, presentation matters. Please, for your book’s sake, don’t ever assume that a professional reader is going to cut your manuscript slack because s/he likes the writing or considers the subject matter intriguing.

Speaking of diagnosis and subject matter, how have you been coming with your categorization projects? Let’s turn to our winners’ 1-page synopses and bios to see if they offer any clues.

Ah, a forest of hands just shot into the air out there. “But Anne,” those who were paying close attention at the beginning of this post protest, and rightly so. “You said that for fiction, the writer’s platform does not matter nearly so much as for nonfiction. I don’t expect that every police procedural to be written by a police officer, any more than I would expect a middle-grade novel about an undersea soccer league to be penned by a mermaid. So why would a fiction-screening Millicent glance at a bio at all until her agency had already decided to pick up a client, much less after reading only the first page of a submission?”

You’re probably right, oh attentive ones — generally speaking, even a professional reader who really loves a fiction manuscript will not read the bio until fairly late in the game. After Millie has finished the submission, she might well scan the bio for additional selling points to mention to her boss. (“This safari novel is great — and the writer once had three toes bitten off by a lion!”)

In the case of John’s manuscript, any expertise he might have in offshore drilling or marine biology might well render his take on a certain recent oil spill more credible for readers. That’s going to be especially true if the book is nonfiction, but because any major event in the news is likely to generate a few novels, an extensive background in the subject matter would help set his book apart from the rest.

Then, too, our goal here is to establish these books’ respective categories, right? Although most of you have probably made an educated guess that Fiona’s book category would fall into the fiction range, from her first page alone, it’s also possible that she’s written a memoir about being a plastic surgery survivor.

The suspense is killing me. Let’s take a gander at her synopsis and bio.

Fiona Maddock is a self-taught artist and writer. She’s a secret scribbler and a closet geek. She’s travelled across Europe, India and round the world. She’s tinkered around with web sites and built on-line art galleries for her work. In 2010, she graduated from the University of Reading with a BSc in Information Technology and this experience inspired her to write science fiction. She lives in Reading, United Kingdom and spends her time on her fiction writing, blogging and supporting disabled students at uni. Contact her through her blog, Novel Thinking.

Eureka! Although she’s just come out and told us what her chosen book category is in her bio — an unusual choice, and one that I think is an inefficient use of page space in what is already a rather information-light bio by U.S. standards — actually, the synopsis renders it perfectly clear. There’s no reason to hesitate for even a moment in assigning this book permanently to the science fiction category.

I have to confess, it always strikes me as a trifle apologetic when writers insist upon including the information that they are self-taught in their bios — or queries, where that fact pops up with astonishing frequency. It’s a statement guaranteed to perplex Millicent: the vast majority of published writers were self-taught; while an M.F.A. in writing makes for some nice ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), and thus might render Millicent a trifle more likely to ask to see pages, it won’t help necessarily help a submission’s chances. The knowledge that a writer taught herself the ropes, however, isn’t unusual enough to strike Millicent one way or the other. Besides, to a pro, the mere fact that the bio mentions no writing credentials implies that the writer has not had any formal training.

That’s mere quibbling, however, over a quite exciting first page and synopsis — and a sultry authorial voice that draws the reader into the story, pronto. Here’s what Heidi and I had to say about them.

While Fiona’s synopsis is still fresh in our collective mind, I’d like to flag a very, very common Millicents’ pet peeve: placing words and phrases within quotation marks that are not actually quotes. Remember, professional readers are paid to be hyper-literal: if words are presented within quotation marks, they will expect that either (a) those words are dialogue, (b) the words within the quotes are intended ironically, in a manner that casts doubt on the aptness of the moniker, or (c) the words within quotes are the title of a short story. Thus, while “Hi, Stan,” or she was wearing a “Chanel” suit would not cause our Millie’s eyebrows to elevate, the fact that one of the characters’ names is consistently presented within quotation marks would send them rocketing into her hairline.

That’s especially likely to happen with this synopsis, as Fiona has used UK-proper single quotation marks, rather than US-proper doubled ones. (Also, when quoted words end a sentence, the period belongs within the quotation marks, not outside.) As we have been discussing in the comments lately, while UK and Canadian formatting and spelling are perfectly correct for manuscripts being submitted in those countries, a US-based Millicent will expect every manuscript she sees to be in American English. (Unless, of course, what she’s seeing is about to be reprinted domestically after successful publication elsewhere in the English-speaking world.)

Why? Chant it with me now, those of you who paid close attention above: in the current literary market, the writer, not agent, is generally held to be responsible for proofreading the manuscript. If Millicent approves a submission, but the pages of a story not set in the UK and intended for publication in the US do not adhere consistently to prevailing US standards, some luckless individual will have to make all of those tiny changes individually.

I’m bringing this up not merely because many, many UK-based science fiction and fantasy writers query New York-based agents every year — it’s a significantly stronger market here, one that supports quite a few more agents — but also because I’d rather like to be able to buy Fiona’s book over here someday. And here, the little things often do make the vital difference in a submission.

Let’s move on to John’s synopsis and bio. Intriguingly, they render the question of book category even more complex than what we were facing on page 1.

John Turley grew up in San Diego, California, loving rocks and the sea. Advanced degrees in petroleum engineering and ocean engineering from the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Miami preceded a three-year professorship and propelled him into the world of offshore drilling. His drilling-management responsibilities with a major oil-and-gas company began with the Gulf of Mexico, evolved to the North Sea, were bolstered by Harvard Business School, and culminated with management of worldwide drilling. He elected to retire early as an officer of the company to focus on writing. In his second career, Turley writes novel-length fiction and short stories. In 2008, he won Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ prestigious Colorado Gold award for his mystery Body Shots (think of Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, but the sharks win). He describes his recently completed novel, Macondo 20-20, as a facts-based, on-the-rig, character-driven story about the Gulf of Mexico well that became the infamous BP blowout. The Turleys live in Littleton, Colorado. On a lake. By a lot of rocks.

Eureka again! John does in fact have precisely the credentials to induce either a nonfiction- or fiction-representing agency’s Millicent to leap squealing from her desk chair and go running into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “This guy is going to be a GREAT interview! He’s got a wonderful platform for writing about the platform!”

But have these additional tidbits cleared up the question of book category? Here’s what Heidi and I had to say on the subject.

So have we resolved the question of book category? I’m afraid not, at least not without reading more of the manuscript: as the last line of the synopsis states point-blank, MACONDO 20-20 is a mixture of fiction and narrative nonfiction; unfortunately, in the current literary market, there is no book category for such a mix. Fiction is fiction, nonfiction nonfiction, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Now, of course, we’ve all seen books that are in fact made up of both fiction and nonfiction; during the height of the narrative nonfiction craze, such hybrids were rather common, often labeled as based on a true story to save the author a few legal headaches. Part of the definitional problem with hybrids lies outside the publishing world. To the average person, nonfiction is true and fiction is false, period: thus the huge scandal when James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES turned out to contain a few fictionalized episodes.

To those who write, represent, and edit books, however, the line between fiction and nonfiction can be far less clear: we all know novelists who import real-life incidents virtually wholesale into works of fiction, as well as nonfiction writers who tweak reality in order to make it a slightly better story. Heck, I know an exceedingly well-established short story author/essayist who says she never knows for sure whether her latest work is fiction or nonfiction until her agent sells it to an editor.

Who promptly labels it as either fiction or nonfiction. The prevailing logic is that the public simply doesn’t like ambiguity.

I wonder about that, since creative nonfiction remains so popular. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, creative nonfiction is the practice of using fiction-writing techniques to write a true story. The usual examples are Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD (or the lesser-known but to my mind more interesting short piece “Hand-Carved Coffins” in MUSIC FOR CHAMELEONS, John Berendt’s MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL, and most of the opus of Tom Wolfe. The writer essentially sticks to the truth, typically backing it up with massive research, but rather than maintaining a journalistic narrative distance from the subject matter, the narrative places the reader in the moment, as in a novel.

Depending upon the current mix of fiction and nonfiction in John’s manuscript, narrative nonfiction might therefore be an excellent choice — especially if the manuscript is not yet completed. Narrative nonfiction, like other nonfiction, is typically sold not on a full manuscript, but via book proposal. (If you’re curious about how much work that would be, John, you might want to skim through the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the archive list located on the lower right-hand side of this page.)

However, the synopsis makes it pretty clear that the book as it stands is fiction. That’s potentially great news, too: this is a fantastic premise for a thriller, and he’s already got the pacing down cold. Thriller expectations would dictate keeping any political message pretty subtle, however. John could still pull upon his experience to lend insight and credibility to the narrative, but he would not be speaking as an expert per se.

It all depends upon what he wants this intriguing book to achieve — and how he wants to make his mark as a writer. Heidi and I could not resist speculating a little. While I was at it, I introduced her to Millicent.

The scope of the story, then, is the decisive factor here. Which side of the fiction/nonfiction fence John ultimately chooses — whether to label it narrative nonfiction and follow real-life characters (which would make the best use of his credentials, and thus probably be easier to sell) or a thriller set within real events (which I suspect is closer to the manuscript he currently has in hand — will determine how the synopsis would need to be revised. As compelling as the story told in the synopsis is, its jumble of fiction and nonfiction is just too likely to leave Millicent wondering, “So where would this book sit in a bookstore?”

How are fiction and nonfiction synopses different, you ask? Well, a synopsis for a novel tells its story directly, as a story. It introduces the protagonist(s), their environment, and the challenges they face. In a nonfiction synopsis, on the other hand, sets up the central premise or argument of the book, makes it clear to the reader what is at stake, and establishes the writer’s platform.

In a novel synopsis, it’s usually not very effective to review the book or talk about it in analytical terms — or, to borrow Millicent’s term for a synopsis that professes to analyze the book in question, high school term paper. Phrases like the reader follows… or review-like qualitative statements about the book merely distance the reader from the story being told.

Why is distance a problem in a fiction synopsis? Part of its point of a fiction synopsis is to show not just the plot’s many twists, but to demonstrate that the writer is a good storyteller. That’s a lot harder to pull off if the reader is told about the characters in summary terms (Antigone is brave, resilient, and doomed.) than if the characters are revealed — yes, even in a synopsis as short as a page — through their actions (Torn between conflicting family loyalties, Antigone defies her uncle and secretly buries her slaughtered brothers.)

Nor is it considered proper to discuss the writer’s platform in a novel’s synopsis, for the same reason that a novelist’s author bio is not typically read until late in the game: for fiction, expert credentials matter less. By presenting a novel in the terms Millicent would expect to see used to describe nonfiction, both professional readers eager to read fiction and those seeking nonfiction on this topic are likely to be confused.

Again, a copse of raised hands has arisen in the ether. “Um, Anne? Am I alone in finding it rather ironic that you should be devoting so much of the prize post for Category III: fiction that could legitimately fit into several book categories to trying to nailing down book categories for John and Fiona? Couldn’t we just, you know, revel in their books’ not fitting into pre-defined molds?”

Well, we could, irony-lovers, but frankly, I would rather see these two talented writers sailing over the many hurdles between finished manuscript and publication as quickly and easily as possible. Not committing to a book category generally stretches out the agent-seeking process, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s far, far harder to track down agents who represent your kind of book if you don’t know what agents would call your kind of book.

It also tends to drag out the process if you do know, but are unwilling to narrow your agent search to the one or two categories that best fit your book. Embracing many categories may render it easier to compile a long list of agents to query, but sadly, there’s no submission less painful to reject than one that does not fit comfortably into an agent’s category preferences.

Yes, no matter how wonderful the book in question may be. Remember, Millicent is under orders. Even if a miscategorized submission causes her to exclaim, “Oh, the writing here is nice, and the premise intriguing,” she has been trained to add regretfully, “but my boss doesn’t represent this kind of book. Next!”

Fiona and John’s first pages are too good to deserve such a fate. Choosing an apt book category is the first step toward successful querying and submission, enabling the writer to focus upon both the norms of that part of the literary market and why the book will appeal to those readers.

Best of luck in the search, John and Fiona, and again, many thanks to Heidi Durrow for her trenchant analysis. Keep your eyes peeled for those vital small details, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Telling it like it was: Author! Author! Rings True memoir winners Kathryn Cureton and Margie Borchers

March 18th, 2011

Kathryn, author of One Great Big Not-Listening Party


Margie, author of The Betrayal Chain

I’ve a treat for you, campers, a reward for spending the last couple of weeks sharpening your self-editing eyes: the first set of winners from the recent Author! Author! Rings True literary competition. Today, we’re going to be taking a nice, intense gander at the page 1, 1-page synopsis, and author bios entered by memoirists Kathryn Cureton and Margie Borchers. Well done, ladies!

To render the festivities even more interesting, I’m also going to be chatting about these winning entries with Heidi Durrow, author of the recent literary fiction debut, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, now available in paperback. In fact, as of this week, Heidi’s book is #15 on the New York Times’ paperback bestseller list, so kudos, Heidi!

In answer to what half of you just thought: yes, that distinction is exceptional for a literary novel, especially a first one. It’s an achievement that makes me cheer even more, because as we discussed my recent interview with Heidi on the joys of writing and marketing literary fiction, this novel circulated for quite some time before being picked up.

So take heart, everybody. It can be done.

The video feedback is an experiment — and an exciting one, I think — so please do chime in and let me know what you think of it. I shall also be doing my trademarked nit-picking, of course, but as those of you who have been hanging out around Author! Author! for a while already know, I’m a huge fan of writers getting as much feedback on their work as humanly possible. And since Heidi was kind enough to provide her trenchant insights, all of us benefit.

This methodology also will allow us to approach these first pages from a variety of different angles. That’s not entirely coincidental. Throughout our ongoing Pet Peeves on Parade series, I’ve been encouraging you to read and reread your manuscripts (preferably IN YOUR BOOK’S ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, just in case you hadn’t added that mentally) not just at the story or proofreading levels, but also to spot repetition, favorite phrases, and other patterns in the text.

So as you read today’s memoir pages, try to apply that multi-level reading sense. And remember, please, that the Author! Author! community is about mutual support: while commenting on these entries is great, do try to keep the feedback constructive.

Constructive feedback is especially important for memoir-writers because, after all, the story on the page is a reflection of one’s life. It’s not as though a memoirist can hop into a time machine, revisit past choices, and change her past paths because a reader would prefer her story to work out that way. The art of memoir lies in how one chooses to write about life as it actually happened.

While we’re on the subject, is everyone familiar with the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? An autobiography is the story of an entire life, told by the person who actually lived it (or at least his ghostwriter). Like a diary, it actually purports to tell as close to everything that happened as is feasible in print. Because autobiography embraces such a wide scope, one’s own technically cannot be completed within one’s lifetime.

A memoir, on the other hand, is an examination of a specific aspect of the author’s life, often focusing upon a single choice, incident, or situation and showing its long-term results. I like to think of it as a portrait of a pebble thrown into a lake: the initial splash is a recordable event, but so are the concentric circles rippling out from it.

Bearing that distinction in mind, I’d like to start our discussion with each winners’ author bio. Both Kathryn and Margie were kind enough to submit their author bios as they would have included them in a query or submission packet, for the benefit of all of you out there who have not yet written and formatted yours. (At the risk of repeating myself: bios are hard to write, and the request often comes at the last minute. Trust me, you will be a much, much happier human being when the request does come if you have prepared your bio — and selected your author photo, also a daunting task for many — well in advance.)

Let’s start with Margie, our second-place winner. As always, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and typing + to enlarge the image.

Makes you want to rush out and buy her memoir, doesn’t it? That’s the magic of a well put-together author bio: unlike an autobiography-style bio, it doesn’t just list everything that the writer thinks a reader might want to know about her. Instead, it’s a micro-memoir, concentrating upon the most surprising elements in the author’s life.

Now that we know who our second-place winner is, let’s take a gander at her first page and 1-page synopsis, presented as our old pal Millicent might first encounter them in a query packet. Try to read them not just as writing, but with an eye to the questions that will be uppermost in Millicent’s mind: is this a life story that grabs me, and is it told in a manner that draws me into it as a reader?

Fair warning: the page that follows deals far more explicitly with a physical relationship than may be comfortable for all readers. This is a memoir aimed specifically at an adult audience. Although I am habitually very careful about my younger readers’ sensibilities, agents and editors sees this kind of opening enough in memoirs and fiction that I think there is value to introducing you to the manuscript this way. So lace up Millicent’s moccasins and pretend you’ve just opened the submission envelope.


These pages have a few formatting problems — extra space between paragraphs, instead of every line being evenly spaced, an off-center title, inconsistent tabbing — but your mind is not on what I’m saying right now, is it? It’s either on that opening — ahem — activity or on the astonishing array of events in the synopsis, right?

So let’s jump straight to the story level — and, because memoirs are generally marketed on book proposals in the US, rather than a completed manuscript, consider marketing as well. Here’s what Heidi and I had to say on those weighty subjects.

All of which is to say: this sounds like one heck of a story. Best of luck with it, Margie!

What’s that I hear out there in the ether? A marketing question? Or is it craft? “It’s a little of both, Anne,” writers intent on opening their manuscripts with a hook pipe up. “The commentary made it sound as though opening a book with a — searching for family-friendly euphemism — love scene that focuses upon the bodies of its participants might not be the best way to grab Millicent’s attention. But what’s more of a grabber than the beast with two backs?”

From a professional reader’s perspective, quite a few things: we may have been founded as Puritan nation, but these days, even fairly explicit lovemaking on the page rarely raises many eyebrows. Heck, it doesn’t even necessarily raise eyebrows in YA anymore. So relying upon that subject matter alone to draw the reader into a story isn’t necessarily going to work.

Partially, that’s because, like eating and drinking, intimate relations are inherently far more interesting to those participating in it than those reading about people participating in it. It’s possible to write about all of these activities in a compelling manner, but all too often, the point of the scene seems to be the act itself. Unless the reader who the couple writhing around together are and the narrative uses their flailings to reveal character or advance the plot, it’s a trifle difficult to care about what’s going on.

Especially for a professional reader: as I mentioned above, Millicent just sees so darned many of the things. Literary contest entries abound in such opening pages. And what have we learned about narrative devices that turn up in submissions all the time, campers?

That’s right: the more often a device is used, the less effective it will be. That’s as true at the submission stage as at the individual manuscript level. Surprising Millicent, providing that she finds the surprise pleasant, is usually to a manuscript’s advantage. Happily, as Margie’s synopsis so abundantly demonstrates, her memoir is likely to do just that.

Now that our multi-level thinking caps are all warmed up — and if you’re not too distracted by your efforts to picture what kind of Dr. Seuss-ish contraption a multi-level thinking cap would be — let’s move on to our first-place winner in the memoir category, Kathryn Cureton’s ONE BIG NOT-LISTENING PARTY. As with our last winner, let’s kick off with the author bio.

Talk about messing with Millicent’s expectations, eh? Kathryn’s taken a risk here, especially in that last line, but it pays off charmingly — and, more important for a writer of a humorous memoir, humorously. Far too many genuinely funny aspiring writers submit dead-serious bios, but why not use it demonstrate to Millicent how funny you are?

Chant it with me, survivors of last autumn’s series on presenting your work in queries, synopses, and bios: every piece of paper and line of text you submit to an agency, publishing house, or writing contest is a writing sample. Treating your author bio — or, indeed, any other part of the query or submission packet — as anything but a storytelling opportunity turns it into precisely what aspiring writers so often think it is: a rather dull little list of achievements.

Heartened by Kathryn’s light-hearted bio, let’s move on to her page 1 and synopsis. This time, there’s no need for the young and the vulnerable to avert their eyes.


An engaging voice, isn’t it? As any memoirist can tell you, that’s not easy to pull off on the page. Particularly if, as Kathryn has pulled off so well here, a memoir-writer attempts the high dive of not only presenting funny facts, but embracing a humorous narrative voice.

I just sensed a few thousand pairs of eyebrows slamming into a few thousand hairlines. “What do you mean, Anne?” would-be humorists the world over ask. “If you write about funny things, a book is automatic going to be funny, right?

Those gales of laughter you hear rolling around in the ether are the collective howls of Millicent, her cousin Maury the editorial assistant, and their long-suffering aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge. As anyone who has ever read professionally would be only too happy to tell you, the overwhelming majority of manuscripts intended to be funny are not.

Sometimes, especially in memoir, that’s a matter of the events depicted not being particularly amusing to a third party. If a joke or situation is dependent upon the reader’s knowing the people involved, or being able to picture the physical environment, even a very funny writer might not be able to render the scene funny on the page.

Or, as we editors like to say when we get together to grumble, “If the writer has ever said, ‘Well, you had to be there,’ he shouldn’t assume that the reader was.” Think carefully about that, oh memoirists and other writers of the real, before you insert real-life hilarity into your texts.

Often, would-be humorists assume — wrongly — that anything that’s funny in real life will be funny on the page. Like any other real-life event, however, how the reader responds depends very largely upon how the writer chooses to present it. Reading about an event is quite different from seeing it first-hand, after all: it’s up to the writer to make it come alive on the page.

Then, too, many people who are funny in real life find when they sit down to put precisely the same anecdotes that have had ‘em rolling in the aisles for a decade onto the memoir page, the result falls a bit flat. There’s a reason for that: a spoken anecdote is very seldom detailed enough to read well verbatim. Verbal humor and written humor do not operate in the same manner.

Don’t believe me? Trot on over to the nearest well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books by stand-up comics and/or comic actors off the shelves. The same words that caused the walls of comedy clubs to sway under the force of gales of laughter will frequently not even elicit a chuckle in a reader. Unless, of course, that reader happens to be exceptionally gifted at imagining authors reading their own books out loud.

But as we may all see, Kathryn has a genuinely funny narrative voice, one that comes across beautifully on the page. It works best when she’s describing something inherently humorous, but frankly, I suspect she could make a recipe for tomato soup funny, if she really put her mind to it.

Heidi and I talked about that very engaging voice for quite some time. Because we both truly wanted to see Kathryn’s voice and story exposed to a wider audience, however, we also concentrated on some marketing issues.

Why worry so much about what’s in the first few lines of a submission, as opposed to, say, halfway down the page? Chant it with me now, long-time readers: the majority of manuscripts are rejected on page 1. So no matter how hilarious or trenchant what happens later on might be, if the opening paragraphs don’t impress Millicent as compelling, she’s probably not going to read on.

Opening with your best material, then, is good strategy. Particularly if you are trying, as any humorous memoirist must be, to elicit a chuckle from Millicent. At the end of a long, hard, eye-straining day or week of screening, that’s likely to be difficult, even if your work happens to land in front of a Millicent who habitually lets a smile be her umbrella.

I also want to revisit that discussion about dated references. In memoir, some are unavoidable: the past is, I’m afraid, noted for being stuffed to the gills with pop culture that faded quickly. As long as the writer doesn’t assume that Millicent — who is likely to be quite young — will know what a Desoto was, or how punk rockers got their mohawks to stand up straight prior to the evolution of today’s plethora of styling products, that’s not necessarily problematic: clear descriptions will prevent her from being distracted by the unfamiliar.

Descriptions of times past are not, surprisingly, the primary producers of references that date a book. Far more common, from Millicent’s perspective: writers embracing cultural references that, while perhaps wildly popular (or infamous) at the time, are no longer current by the time the manuscript or book proposal shows up at an agency. Or — and most aspiring writers don’t take this into account — will no longer be lingering in the mainstream consciousness two or three years hence, when a book picked up by an agent today is likely to hit the shelves.

Did the collective thunk of all of those jaws on the floor indicate that the time lag comes as a surprise to some of you? It does to most aspiring writers. But think about it: the process of finding the right agent for a book (as opposed to just any agent) can take anywhere from weeks (unusual) to years (the norm) — and she’s probably going to ask for revisions (more weeks/months/years). Once she has the completed manuscript in hand, she’s not necessarily going to be able to sell it right away; since publishing houses have been trimming their staffs extensively over the last couple of years, even an excellent manuscript can be waiting in the reading stack for months on end. After an editor acquires the book, even if he doesn’t want additional changes (but he will — or the editor who takes over after the acquiring editor is laid off might), the project still has to wait until its assigned place in the print queue comes up. That last part alone usually takes nine months or a year, at minimum.

So — are you sitting down? — it’s prudent to assume that any reference you pen today will need to resonate with readers two or three years from now. When, if a generous power rules the universe, the general public will have only a dim recollection of what a Snooki was.

“Did people drive it?” our grandchildren will ask breathlessly. “Wear it? Or did it sit on a shelf next to a Pet Rock?”

Since writing a book generally takes quite some time, a savvy writer keeps her eye out for cultural references that won’t stand the test of time. Movie lines tend not to mature well, TV catchphrases even less so. And as for odd fads, well, let me put it this way: can you tell me in which year Al Gore made a joke about doing the Macarena in a speech at his party’s national convention?

Hands up, readers too young to remember the Macarena. (Don’t worry; you didn’t miss much.) Keep those hands up if you cannot without the aid of Google conjure up a mental image of Al Gore.

By all means lower your hands if you happen to be sitting next to an American reader over 50. S/he may need your assistance in getting up after falling over in a dead faint.

Before I leave you to ponder the pop culture of days gone by — I, for one, shall be reliving the dubious days when my elementary school teachers decided the best use of P.E. time was teaching my small classmates and yours truly the Hustle; P.E. stood for Physical Education, Millicent, back in the days when schools had larger budgets — I should like to call one more thing to your attention. Margie and Kathryn have taken quite different approaches to introducing readers to their respectively quite interesting life stories, but the fact that their stories are true is not the only trait rendering them compelling.

Voice makes a significant difference; so does selectivity. By focusing upon significant trends and events in their lives, rather than simply flinging the kitchen sink at the reader, they beckon us to follow them as they reexamine their pasts.

Good memoir is good storytelling, my friends, as well as strategic pebble-tossing. Well done, Kathryn and Margie, and many thanks to Heidi Durrow. And everybody, keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better first-place winners in adult fiction, Curtis Moser’s Perdition and Jens Porup’s The Second Bat Guano War

September 20th, 2010

Curtis Moser author photo Jens_Porup_photo

Welcome back to our ongoing salute to the winners of the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest in Category I: Adult Fiction. I am genuinely thrilled, not only to be able to bring you tantalizing tastes of some very talented writers’ prose, but also by the extraordinarily rich fund of discussion points these page 1s have been providing. Honestly, even though I’ve been chattering on here at Author! Author! for over five years about craft, presentation, voice, submission, and manuscript formatting, I keep finding myself thinking while I am typing, is it possible I’ve never blogged about this before?

Today’s exemplars are particularly fine ones, Adult Fiction first-place winners Jens Porup (the dapper fellow on the right, above) and Curtis Moser (the gentleman on the left with the two wee friends). The judges felt, and I concur, that both of their first pages were remarkable examples of strong authorial voice precisely suited to their target audiences.

They also felt, as do I, that there were some presentation issues that might prevent either of these exciting, fresh voices from getting a sympathetic reading from our old pal Millicent, the caffeine-quaffing agency screener. And since I know from long, long experience working with first-time authors that these specific presentation problems dog many, many otherwise well-done first pages, I am delighted to have the excuse to talk about them at length today.

First, though, to the voices. As we’ve discussed in the last couple of posts, the match between narrative voice and chosen book category can be vital to the success of a submission, particularly for genre fiction and YA: ideally, a great first page should cause Millicent to sigh pleasurably and murmur, “Ah, this is a fresh take on a story my boss can sell to this market, appropriate in voice, vocabulary, and tone for the intended readership, that also displays a fluency in the conventions of the genre.”

Okay, so that’s quite a bit to murmur over the first paragraph of a submission, but since it is safe to assume that a Millicent employed by an agency that represents a lot of, say, thrillers will be staring at queries and submissions for thrillers for a hefty chunk of any given workday, the last response a thriller-mongering querier or submitter should want to elicit is a spit-take of too-hot latte and a cry of, “Wait — hasn’t this writer ever read a book in this category?” or “What’s that kind of word choice doing in a manuscript intended for this market?”

Or even, saddest of all, “Wow, this is a fresh, exciting new voice. What a shame that it’s not appropriate for the book category in which this talented person has chosen to write.”

Unfortunately for both literature and the health of Millicent’s throat, all three of these reactions to well-written first pages are a part of her normal workday. Often, in the joy of creation, aspiring writers lose sight of the fact that no novel is intended for a general audience. Even bestsellers that turn out to appeal to wide swathes of the reading public begin their publishing lives as books aimed at a specific part of that audience.

And frankly, the reading public expects that. Even the most eclectic of readers understands that a YA novel is not going to read like a romance novel, science fiction, or Western, even if the book contains elements of any or all of those genres, and that an adult genre novel will adhere, at least roughly, to the conventions, tone, and general reading level of its book category.

Were that not the case, brick-and-mortar bookstores would not organize their offerings by category, right? Oh, they usually have a generalized fiction or literature section, but if you’re looking for fantasy, it’s probably going to have a bookshelf of its own, crammed to the gills with novels that share, if not subject matter, at least a species resemblance of storytelling structure and voice.

So while naturally, an aspiring writer should not strive to produce a carbon-copy voice — why should Millicent recommend that her boss pick up a book that sounds precisely like another that’s already on the market? — it’s an excellent idea to re-read one’s submission with an eye to genre-appropriateness. Especially the opening pages, since, as I hope we all know by now, most submissions are rejected on page 1.

Thus it follows as dawn the night that the book description and the first page are not too early to establish that your book fits comfortably into the category you have chosen for it — and thus into Millicent’s boss’ client list. Remember, just as no novel is actually intended for every conceivable reader, no agent represents every type of book. They specialize, and so should you.

Why, yes, now that you mention it, gearing your voice to your chosen book category would be a heck of a lot easier if you invested some time in reading what’s come out recently in it. How savvy of you to realize that what might have struck Millicent as a fresh take fifteen years ago would probably not elicit the same pleased murmuring today.

As fate would have it, both of today’s winning entries fall into the same general book category: thrillers. However, these books are aimed at different readerships within the thriller genre. Curtis’ PERDITION is a paranormal thriller:

Colt Miller has driven by the cemetery house for years. When the owner died, he watched the shingles curl and the porch sag, and in his mind he nurtured the fantasy of restoring it to its former beauty. So when the bank finally brings it up for auction and there are no bidders, Colt is thrilled to purchase it cheap. After he finds the body of a little girl in the basement, however, the thrill ebbs along with his enthusiasm, and the memory of the loss of his own daughter threatens to swallow up what remains of his business, his life, and his sanity.

Sounds like a story about an interesting person in an interesting situation, right? Yet the potential for paranormal activity didn’t jump out until that last sentence, did it? If I were editing this paragraph in a query, I would bump some of the skin-crawling feeling up to the first sentence, on the general principle that a Millicent who read queries for paranormal thrillers all day might not be automatically creeped out by the word cemetery.

But it does read as genre-appropriate, and that’s the most important thing. So does Jens’ brief description for THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR (the judges’ favorite title in the competition, by the way):

This hard-boiled spy thriller set in Peru and Bolivia is an unflinching look at vice and corruption among expatriate Americans living in South America. When the hero’s best friend and CIA handler goes missing, he must risk everything to find him.

While this is a perfectly fine description, as those of you who followed the recent Querypalooza series are no doubt already aware, I prefer even the briefest novel description to give more of an indication of the book’s storytelling style and voice. Unlike Millicent, though, I did not need to judge the style on this terse paragraph: I asked Jens for a more extensive description.

Rats ate his baby daughter while he partied in a disco. Now Horace “Horse” Mann is a drugged-out expat teaching English to criminals in Lima, Peru. Oh, and doing the odd favor for the CIA.

When his drinking buddy and CIA contact, Pitt Watters, goes missing, Horse’s efforts to find him hit a snag. He comes home to find his lover, Lynn — Pitt’s mother — strangled in his apartment. Arrested and charged with murder, Horse escapes Lima and follows his only lead to a Buddhist ashram on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

There, Horse uncovers his friend’s involvement with a group of Gaia-worshipping terrorists who want to kill off the human “disease” infecting the earth.

The group’s leader, a world-famous vulcanologist, explains that only a new generation of lithium-ion batteries can replace the dwindling supply of fossil fuels. The group plans to set off a volcanic chain reaction that would destroy the world’s most promising lithium fields, and thus ensure that man pays for his polluting sins.

Horse finally finds Pitt on top of a volcano, his thumb on the detonator. Pitt confesses to killing Lynn, begs Horse to join him in the purification of Gaia. Horse must choose: end the world, himself, his guilt? Or forgive himself the death of his daughter, and find a way to live again?

Complete at 80,000 words, THE SECOND BAT GUANO WAR is a hard-boiled thriller set in South America, with an environmental twist.

Sounds like precisely what the first description promised: a hard-boiled spy thriller. But this description shows these qualities, in a voice that’s book category-appropriate; the first just asserts them.

And if you found yourself murmuring, “Show, don’t tell,” congratulations: you’re starting to think like Millicent.

I love this description for another reason, though — it’s a glorious illustration my earlier point about Millicents working in agencies that represent different kinds of books looking for different things at the querying and submission stage. A Millicent habituated to screening thrillers would glance at that first sentence and murmur, “Wow, that’s a graphic but fascinating detail; I don’t see that every day,” whereas a literary fiction-reading Millicent have quite the opposite response: “Wait, didn’t rats eat a protagonist’s baby sister in Mario Vargas Llosa’s AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER?”

The moral, in case I’m being too subtle here: what’s fresh in one book category will not necessarily be in another. If Cormac McCarthy’s beautifully-written THE ROAD had shown up as a first novel in a science fiction/fantasy-representing agency, its Millicent would have rolled her eyes and muttered, “Not this old premise again!”

Happily, the target audience for hard-boiled spy thrillers tends not to have much overlap with that for literary fiction. For one thing, about 90% of habitual literary fiction buyers are female, whereas the overwhelming majority of spy thriller readers are male. So not only does Jens not need to worry too much about perusers of the Nobel Prize in Literature short list catching the similarity; they probably won’t even be browsing in the same part of the bookstore.

Before I move on to what really makes these two entries remarkable, the strong voices in their openings, I can’t resist pointing out a common synopsis and book description faux pas in that last example. Take another peek at its last paragraph: can anyone tell me why it might be problematic at query or submission time?

Award yourself a gold star if you instantly cried out, “A synopsis or book description for a novel should concentrate on the plot!” (And take two more gold stars out of petty cash if you thought that the first time you read that description.) When an agency’s guidelines ask for a synopsis, they expect an overview of the plot: basic introductions to the main characters and their conflicts. Mentions of technical matters like the length or book category do not belong here.

But that’s not actually the reason I flagged this paragraph. Any other guesses? (Hint: a LOT of queriers include this faux pas in their letters, too.)

Give up? The phrase Complete at 80,000 words actually doesn’t make sense in a novel query. Novels are ASSUMED to be complete before the writer begins to query them — so why mention it? All bringing it up achieves is to make Millicent wonder if the querier is also sending out letters for other novels that are not yet complete.

Also, the mention of the word count, while well within the standard range for thrillers, is not particularly helpful information to include. It’s not a usual element in a synopsis or book description, but even in a query, it can only hurt you.

Why? Well, as I argued at the beginning of Querypalooza, the only use Millicent can make of word count in a query is if it is higher or lower than expected for that book category. And that use is, “Next!”

“130,000 words!” she exclaims, reaching for the form-letter rejections. “Far too long for my boss to be able to submit to editors in this book category. Too bad, because the book description sounded interesting until that last bit about the word count. And why on earth would she be wasting my time with a manuscript that wasn’t complete?”

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, some agency guidelines (but not many; check) do specify that they would like to see word count mentioned in queries: speed of rejection. Think about it: if Millicent does not realize until she has opened the requested materials submission packet that the manuscript is longer than her agency wishes, she will usually read at least the first page anyway. And if she is taken by that first page, she might well read on.

So by the time she realizes that there are 120 more pages in that manuscript than her boss would like, she might already have fallen in love with it. The agent might have, too. In the worst-case scenario, their only course might be to sign the writer and ask her to trim the manuscript.

So including the word count is to the querier’s advantage how, precisely?

Speaking of falling in love with a new writer’s voice, I imagine that you’re getting impatient to read those aptly-voiced first pages I’ve been going on and on about. Let’s begin with Curtis Moser’s:

Curtis Moser page 1

And here is Jens Porup’s:

Jens Porup p1

Original, assured authorial voices, right? Fresh without sending up red flags that the book to follow might not fit comfortably into the stated book category (although personally, I found the Colt 45 joke in the first a bit obvious: wouldn’t it be funnier to let the reader figure out later in the story that the guy named Colt was indeed 45?), these opening pages both announce where these books will sit in a bookstore and promise good, genre-appropriate writing to come.

Not only that, but both protagonists come across as interesting, quirky people faced with interesting, unexpected challenges. We as readers might be quite happy to follow these guys around for a few hundred pages.

But did something seem slightly off on both of those page 1s? Something, perhaps, in the formatting department?

Hint: they should look quite a bit more alike than they currently do. An even bigger hint: in one major respect, they have opposite problems.

Still not seeing it? Okay, let’s take a gander at both first pages with the formatting irregularities fixed. Again, Curtis first, then Jens:

Curtis reformatted

Jens page 1 reformatted

They look much more alike this way, don’t they? That’s not entirely coincidental: the point of standard format is that all manuscripts should look alike. That way, the formatting does not distract from professional readers’ evaluation of the writing.

Award yourself one of those gold stars I’ve been tossing about so freely if you cried upon comparing the original versions to the revisions, “By Jove, margins were quite off the first time around. Curtis’ left and right margins are too big; Jens’ left, right, and bottom are too small. And is the slug line in the second in a rather unusual place in the header?”

Exactly so — and as Goldilocks would say, the margins in the revised versions are just right. Nice point about the slug line, too. As small as these deviations from standard format may seem, to someone accustomed to reading professionally-formatted manuscripts, they would be indicative of a certain lack of familiarity with submission norms. At minimum, a pro’s first glance at these pages would tend to lead to reading the actual text with a jaundiced eye: remember, new clients who need to be coached in how the biz works are significantly more time-consuming for an agent to sign than those who already know the ropes.

Even if that were not a consideration, these formatting problems would be a significant distraction from the good writing on these pages. In fact (avert your eyes, children; this sight is going to be almost as distressing to the average aspiring writer as a baby gobbled up by rats), there’s a better than even chance that the formatting would have prompted Millicent not to read these pages at all.

Okay, so it’s not up to baby-consumption levels of horror, but it’s still a pretty grim prospect, right? See why I was so thrilled to have the opportunity to comment upon these pages? A few small formatting changes will render them much, much more appealing to Millicent.

Bonus: all of the formatting gaffes you see above are very, very common in submissions. In fact, they were extremely common in the entries to this contest — which is why, in case any of you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, deviations from standard format, although explicitly forbidden in the contest’s rules, did not disqualify anybody.

Hey, there’s a reason that I run my HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT series a couple of times per year. (Conveniently gathered for your reading pleasure under the category of the same name on the archive list at right, by the way.) The overwhelming majority of aspiring writers believe, wrongly, that formatting is a matter of style, rather than simply the way the pros expect writing to be presented.

Let’s take these pages one at a time. Curtis’ left and right margins are set at 1.25″, rather than the expected 1″. While this formatting choice was actually rather nice for me as an editor (don’t worry, the marked-up versions are following below), it would necessarily throw the estimated word count for a loop: as you may see from the before and after versions, 1″ margins allow for quite a few more words on the page. So does turning off the widow/orphan control (which you will find under the FORMAT/PARAGRAPH/LINE AND PAGE BREAKS section in Word), so that every page has the same number of lines of text.

Now let’s talk slug line, that bit in the header containing the author’s last name, book title, and page number. Or rather, it should contain the page number: on this page, the number is off on its own, on the far side of the page. So the slug line looks like this:

Moser / Perdition

Rather than the expected:

Moser/Perdition/1

As you have no doubt already noticed, the expected version does not feature spaces before and after the slashes. What you may not have noticed, however, was that in the original, the slug line was in 10-point type, rather than the 12-point that should characterize every word in a manuscript. Also, the chapter title is in 14-point type AND in boldface, both standard format no-nos.

I’d actually be astonished if you spotted the other font-based problem, because the key to diagnosing it lies in being able to see it in soft copy: the skipped double-spaced lines between the chapter title and the first line of text are in 14-point, too. The difference on the printed page is miniscule, admittedly, but while we’re revising, we might as well go the whole hog, eh?

Jens’ page 1 is even more likely to be rejected on sight, due to his margins: 1.17″ at the top, .79 inch along the other three sides, and as the exclaimers above pointed out, the slug line is at the bottom of the header, rather than at the usual .5 from the top of the paper. In most literary contests, shrinking the margins to this extent would result in instant disqualification, but hey, we do things a little bit differently here at Author! Author!.

The funny thing is, shrinking the margins actually didn’t get much more material on this page. As some of you compare-and-contrasters may already have noticed, were the chapter title and space between the top of the page and the beginning of the text shrunk to standard format for a chapter opening, only a line and a half would be pushed to page 2.

Actually, if Jens were willing to change the font to Times New Roman, he’d actually gain space. To tell you the truth, I always discourage my editing clients from submitting work in Courier, anyway (or, in this case, Courier New): yes, it’s technically acceptable (and required for screenplays), but Times New Roman is the industry standard for novels.

Besides, it’s spiffy. Take a gander:

Jens page 1 TNR

Looks quite a bit sharper, doesn’t it? True, part of that increased neatness comes from bringing the page more in line with what Millicent would expect cosmetically: starting the text 1/3 of the way down the page, moving the Chapter One up to the top, not left-justifying anything but the slug line, and removing both the extra spaces and selective capitalization from that.

Hey, every little bit helps, right?

Now that we’ve gotten all of that distracting formatting out of the way, let’s see how Millicent responds to Jens’ first page now that she is reading it:

Jens edit2

Pretty positively, by professional readers’ standards, right? The judges felt the same way — but believed, as I do, that a couple of minor text changes would make Millicent like it even more. The first suggestion, however, would require substantial rearrangement of this opening scene.

Why? Well, in a novel’s opening, speech without a speaker identified – or, in this case, without the narrative’s even specifying whether the voice was male or female — is a notorious agents’ pet peeve. It’s not on every pet peeve list, but it’s on most. Guessing really drives ‘em nuts.

“It’s the writer’s job to show me what’s going on,” Millicent mutters, jabbing her pen at the dialogue, “not my job to fill in the logical holes. Next!”

On Jens’ page 1, having the action of the scene turn on a disembodied voice is even more dangerous, because it raises the possibility that perhaps this book should have been categorized on the other side of the thriller spectrum: as a paranormal thriller like Curtis’, rather than a spy thriller. Oh, it didn’t occur to you that the voice might have been of supernatural origin? It would to a Millicent whose boss represents both types of thriller.

The other avoidable potential red flag here is the word choice chancre. It’s a great word, but let’s face it, thriller-readers tend not to be the types to drop a book on page 1 in order to seek out a dictionary’s assistance. Even if Millicent happened to be unusually familiar with social disease-related terminology, she would probably feel, and rightly so, that this word is aimed above the day-to-day vocabulary level of this book’s target audience.

And no, I’m not going to define it for you. Despite all of this talk of baby-eating, this is a family-friendly website.

Dismissing the manuscript on these grounds would be a genuine shame — this is one of the most promising thriller voices I’ve seen in a long time. This jewel deserves the best setting possible to show off its scintillations.

And once again, isn’t it remarkable just how much more closely professional readers examine even very good text than the average reader? Here, Curtis’ first page gets the Millicent treatment:

Curtis edit

Again, a great opening, exciting new voice, and genre-appropriate, with the fringe benefit of a real grabber of an opening sentence. (That, ladies and gentleman, is how one constructs a hook.) The character-revealing specifics in the second paragraph are also eye-catching: considering that all of these telling details are external characteristics, they certainly give a compelling first glimpse of the man.

I see that Millicent agrees with me that that drawing the reader’s attention to the Colt 45 analogy twice on a single page might be overkill, though. Funny how that worked out, eh? She left it in the title — as, remarkably, would I — but advised cutting the unnecessary explanation at the beginning of paragraph 2.

The other easily-fixable element is an old favorite from this summer’s first page revision series: all of those ands. As we discussed in Juniper Ekman’s grand prize-winning entry last time, the frequent use of and is common in both YA and first-person narratives, as an echo of everyday speech.

On the printed page, especially if that printed page happens to be page 1 of an adult narrative, all of those ands can become wearying to the eye. As, indeed, does any word or phrase repetition: they tempt the weary skimmer to skip lines. Take a gander at how the word and phrase repetition here might jump out at Millicent:

Curtis page 1 ands

See how that percussive repetition conveys the impression that the sentence structure is far less varied than it actually is? Yet as individual sentences, most of this is nicely written — and despite all of the ands, there is only one honest-to-goodness run-on here.

The good news is that, like most word repetition, this is going to be quite simple to fix. It merely requires taking a step back from the text to see it as a pro would: not merely as one nice sentence following another to make up a compelling story and fascinating character development, but as a set of patterns on a page.

Wow, that was a productive little discussion, wasn’t it? Many thanks to Jens and Curtis for prompting it.

Oh, and once again, congratulations!

Next time — which may well follow late tonight, post-PT energies permitting; we’ve got a lot of contest winners to get through between now and the grand opening of Synopsispalooza on Saturday — I shall present you with another set of first-place-winning entries, this time in YA. Keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Normal Is What You Know, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in Memoir winner Jennifer Lyng

September 2nd, 2010

jennifer_lyng

Is everyone getting excited for Querypalooza this coming weekend? I hope so; although I frequently teach query letter-development boot camps, I’ve never before done a weekend seminar here on Author! Author! The timing really couldn’t be better, however: as we had discussed early last month, most of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation from the end of the second week of August through Labor Day. So there really wasn’t much point querying recently.

Especially for those of you devoted to querying via e-mail. I’m not a big advocate of electronic querying in general, unless the agent of your dreams absolutely insists upon it: it’s significantly less time-consuming to reject via e-mail. That’s especially important to realize around this time of year, for just as e-queries sent between Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to pile up, to be read in droves when Millicent the agency screener is back from vacation, August-sent e-queries usually end up being read in an unusually great hurry (even by Millie’s standards). And since the quickest way to clear an e-query out of her inbox is to reject it…

Human nature, I’m afraid. Who doesn’t rush through the backlog on one’s desk after a few days out of the office?

What wisdom may we derive from this set of depressing observations? Well, for starters, it’s a safe bet that our Millicent is going to be pretty swamped right after Labor Day — so whatever you do, campers, do not send out an e-query between now and then.

Trust me, you do not want your query to be the 512th in her inbox. If you must e-query, wait a few days, until her inbox no longer looks like it was the RSVP site for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

So much for today’s cautions. On to the fun part: awarding a prize.

Today, I shall be discussing the 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in Memoir winner, Jennifer Lyng’s NORMAL IS WHAT YOU KNOW. As with the three other A!A!AEE winners this year, Jennifer also won the Grand Prize in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

After yesterday’s very technical discussion on the merits and liabilities of the A!A!AEE winner in Adult Fiction, I thought it might make for a nice change of pace to discuss this entry on a more visceral level — which is, not entirely coincidentally, the level at which the judges most enthusiastically responded to it. And, while we’re at it, to talk a little bit about how differently memoir tends to be evaluated from fiction at the submission and contest-judging stages.

For starters, as I hope most of you memoirists are already aware, the vast majority of memoirs currently acquired by publishers in the United States are sold via a book proposal, not an entire manuscript. That means, in effect, that a memoirist not have to have a complete draft in hand before beginning to query; technically, all that’s required is a book proposal and a beautifully-polished sample chapter or two.

Does that giant collective gasp mean that some of you had heard otherwise? I’m not entirely surprised; misinformation on this subject has been circulating rampantly around the writers’ conference circuit for at least a decade. But as an author who has successfully garnered publication offers for two memoir book proposals, I’m living proof that the you-must-write-the-whole-thing rumor just isn’t true.

For those of you who are already sprinting toward the archive list at right, you’ll find the guidance you’re seeking under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL and HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK PROPOSAL categories. You’re welcome.

To be fair, though, one does encounter memoir agents who state categorically in their submission guidelines that they will only read the work of first-time memoirists, but that certainly is not an industry-wide preference. Prudently, these agents want to make sure before they sign a new writer that (a) she has a gripping book-length story to tell (not always apparent in the first draft of a proposal), (b) she has the writing chops to tell it well (ditto), and (c) she is already aware that writing a truly revealing memoir is awfully hard work, emotionally speaking.

Obviously, it is a whole lot easier to tell whether any or all of these thing are true if the writer has already produced a full draft. No imagination required: the potential of the book may simply be evaluated on the manuscript page, like a novel.

But even after a manuscript proves itself on (a), (b), and (c) levels, the acquiring agent will probably expect the by-now-exhausted writer to toss off a book proposal, anyway. That’s how memoir is sold in this country, you know.

(a), (b), and (c) are not the only reasons a cautious agent might want to see the whole thing right off the bat, though. Many a promising memoir heralded by an excellent book proposal has never seen the light of day as a book. And not just because first memoirs by non-celebrity writers have become significantly harder for agents to sell in the post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES literary world. As I mentioned above, the darned things are emotionally draining to write.

Even for those lucky memoirists whose books’ publication is not stymied by threatened $2 million lawsuits. (Long-time readers, can you believe that as of last month, my A FAMILY DARKLY has been on hold for FIVE YEARS?)

The trouble is, a memoirist may not realize just how draining the process can be until he’s well into the writing process — which is to say, for a memoir sold on a proposal, perhaps not until after he’s penned the proposal or even sold the book. It can take a while to reconstruct one’s own past substantively enough to be able to write about it, after all. Unfortunately for personal happiness, but fortunately for the emotional truth of memoir, the brain and the body do not always make a strong distinction between a vividly-recalled event and one that is actually happening in the moment.

Please think about that, the next time you pick up a beautifully-written memoir on a searingly painful subject. The author had to walk through fire twice in order to tell you about her experience.

Which brings me back to Jennifer Lyng’s powerful entry. Frankly, the judges had not originally planned to have a separate memoir category in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest; when I set up Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir, I had anticipated simply including any winning memoirs in the general adult category.

Then we read Jennifer’s entry. It was clear right away that memoir deserved its own category.

Actually, I probably should have designed the contest that way in the first place: after all, as we discussed above, memoirs are not usually submitted in the same manner as novels. Yes, grabbing Millicent by the bottom of page 1 is still important, but let’s face it, if she has to plow through 30-50 pages of marketing material before she gets to it — sample chapters are placed at the end of proposals, typically — she’s probably not going to make it to page 1 if she is not already at least slightly interested in the subject matter.

That’s why for this contest, the judges read the memoir entrants’ brief book descriptions prior to turning to the first page, instead of the other way around. The result was a reading that more closely resembled how Millicent would approach the first page of a memoir.

Happily, Jennifer’s description was a lulu. So much so, in fact, that one of the judges immediately suggested, “Maybe you should run this on the blog to show queriers that it is actually possible to intrigue a reader with a one-paragraph description.”

Good idea, judge. Here it is, in all of its glory:

How does a child live with the man she believes killed her mother? My book, a combination of memoir and true crime, will answer that question, as well as detail the murder trial that took 17 years to unfold — one with no body, weapon or eyewitness.

Wow. You already want to pick up that book, right?

It also — and this is remarkable in a blurb this short — answers one of the first two questions the pros invariably ask about a non-celebrity memoir: is this a story that only this author could tell? If not, why is this author uniquely qualified to tell it in this particular way? Jennifer addresses these salient issues even more fully in her one-page description:

Normal is synopsis

Sends chills up your spine, doesn’t it? If you were Millicent, wouldn’t you run, not walk, to the first page of the sample chapter, to see how well the person who lived through this remarkable set of events can write?

As it happens, quite well. Here is Jennifer’s first page, precisely as the judges saw it.

Lyng entry page 1

What do you think? More importantly for submission purposes, if you were Millicent and basing your decision whether to read on solely upon the descriptions above and this first page, would you? And if you were Millie’s boss, what conclusions would you leap to about (a), (b), and (c)?

The judges felt (and I concur) that this first page has a lot of promise — but not for the same reasons that a similarly-written novel opening might. Remember, the single biggest way in which fiction and nonfiction first pages are read differently is that it is ASSUMED that the nonfiction manuscript will be rewritten to the acquiring editor’s specifications. It is still to be written: the proposal is in essence the job application the writer submits to the publishing house in hopes of being paid to write it. A novel, on the other hand, is expected to be print-ready by the time the writer submits it to an agency.

Admittedly, agents often ask novelists for significant revisions after the representation contract is signed. So do editors, either before or after they acquire a manuscript. That may seem odd, given that they expect fiction to be polished to a high shine before they see it, but it makes abundant sense from a professional point of view: a writer who has the skills to perfect a submission, they reason, is the best candidate for making good revisions.

Part of the point of selling a memoir — or any nonfiction book, for that matter — via a book proposal, rather than a manuscript, is that the publisher will be able to tell the writer how it should be written. Although book proposals always include an annotated table of contents, it’s not at all unusual for an acquiring editor to ask for different chapters to appear in the finished book, for instance. It’s not even all that uncommon for the editor to request slight changes in authorial voice.

I mention all this in part because I suspect some of you novelists are going to be a smidge shocked when I show you how Millicent might respond to this first page on a sentence-by-sentence level. She’s expecting it to be revised between now and publication, so why not go to town on the feedback?

Lyng p 1 edited

(If you’re having a spot of trouble reading the comments, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key while pressing the + button. And no, I hadn’t realized that the light in this room was so very golden.)

Most of these points are pretty self-explanatory — beginning the page with the moment of dread, for instance, rather than showing a moment of normalcy first for contrast — but I want to take a minute to talk about the ones that turn up most often in memoir. I would have flagged the percussive repetition of my mother on any first page, but does anyone have a wild guess about why this redundancy is especially dangerous on the first page of a memoir?

Give up? It’s because virtually every first-time memoirist consistently refers to relatives as my mother, my father, my sister, and so forth, just as they would in a verbal anecdote. That’s fine in speech, but on the printed page, a constant reminder of characters’ relationship to the narrator quickly becomes tedious for the reader.

“What’s wrong,” Millicent fumes, “with referring to all of these people by NAME? They’re characters in a book, for heaven’s sake!”

That objection is relevant even in a case like this, where the single most likely name to replace the relationship marker is Mom. Believe it or not, simply changing two of the three my mothers to Mom would make most Millicents like it better.

The moral, should you not already have shouted it toward the sky: the little stuff matters. Especially on page 1.

It’s also both common and dangerous for a memoir to open with a sentence in the passive voice. As this one does: It was a crisp, overcast fall day… Any guesses why this simple statement of fact might raise Millicent’s hackles?

If you immediately cried, “Because it’s in the passive voice, by jingo!” give yourself a gold star for the day. As we have often discussed, the overwhelming majority of professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as poor writing. While that’s not quite fair — plenty of very good established authors use the passive voice all the time, after all — it is a belief worth noting.

In fact, I’m going to lay it down as an axiom: never, unless you are actually quoting someone else, use the passive voice on page 1 of a submission. And never, ever, EVER use it in the first sentence of a manuscript, or in the first sentence of any paragraph within the first few pages.

Why is the use of the passive voice more likely to make Millicent’s molars grind if they occupy those particular positions within the text? The first sentence of any paragraph is the one most likely to catch a skimmer’s eye. And if Millicent reads nothing else on page 1, she will take a gander at the first sentence.

The third common first memoir characteristic I’d like you to notice is much subtler than the first two: the emotional distance between the narrator and what is going on. On the first page of a memoir — and in memoir-writing in general — the more the reader can feel that he is observing the action from within the narrator’s body and psyche, the better.

Didn’t expect another axiom so soon, did you? Hey, I was on a roll.

Are some of you having trouble spotting the emotional distance, given how nicely Jennifer has set up the suspense here? A professional reader would appreciate the tangible sense that something awful is about to happen, but would note that while we’re seeing the narrator’s thoughts and reasoning in detail, the narrator is not telling us much about her own feelings, fears, or even physical sensations.

Yes, she mentions needing to go to the bathroom, but is that honestly the most character- or situation-revealing physical sensation the narrative could bring up here? At the risk of overloading this post with axioms, I would like to see this narrative be the protagonist’s head a bit less and in her body and emotions a bit more.

Jennifer’s in luck here: as she has presented this situation, it is particularly rich in opportunities for working in this kind of telling detail. The narrator could have a visceral reaction to the unexpected sensation of the doorknob fighting her hand, or to the sight of the “Sorry we missed you” sign. She could feel a rush of comfort when the dogs bark. Heck, she could even feel the cold coming through her jacket as she stood outside longer than she had expected.

Or — and this would be my first stop, revision-wise — the narrative could give us a peek at the most awful thing that 13-year-old could have imagined resulting in the door’s being locked. Given what the book description has led us to expect, the contrast between the normal fears of a kid and what is about to become her new reality would probably be quite poignant.

But you want to turn the page to find out, don’t you?

That, my friends, is the best possible evidence that a first page is a grabber — and yes, what constitutes a grabber does in fact often vary between fiction and nonfiction. Already, in just this page and her one-paragraph description for her query letter, Jennifer has made it clear that she has a fascinating story to tell, has the writerly tools to tell it well, and is ready to embrace the memoir-writing experience.

It’s as clear as (a), (b), (c), right? Congratulations on a job well done, Jennifer — the judges can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

In future posts, we shall continue apply what we’ve been learning all summer to the great first pages of more contest winners. (You did realize that’s what we’ve been doing, right?) Think of it as a master class in seeing submissions from Millicent’s perspective.

That noble effort will have to wait, however, until after Querypalooza — after so much craft, we’re all ready for a marketing weekend, right? Keep up the good work!

The scourge of the passive interviewer, part IV: don’t go casting your novel’s characters QUITE yet

August 11th, 2010

royal-tenenbaumsposter

Hello, campers –

Here, as promised, is a re-run of an earlier post on a topic we were all blithely discussing in the happy days before those two cars decided to adhere themselves to mine so abruptly. While I would have preferred to embellish it with a practical exercise or two, designed to send you running toward your respective manuscripts, highlighting pens in hand, I suspect that as it stands, it will provide abundant fodder for discussion.

Before I let you get on with it, I can’t resist adding both a well-deserved plug and a bit of scolding for the movie shown in poster form above (and used as an example below). Novelists and memoirists — perhaps especially memoirists — interested in learning the difficult art of giving the slight spin to realistic dialogue to make it witty would do well to invest an hour or two in watching THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The screenplay’s lovely, full of the kind of banter writers love but filmgoers don’t always appreciate; it’s really a film best seen by oneself, to appreciate the dialogue fully.

That being said, it contains perhaps the single least excusable character-naming joke I have ever heard: the mother of the family, an urban archeologist, is called Etheline. Leaving aside the fact that this would be a rather surprising name for wealthy New Yorkers to have chosen for their daughter in the 1940s or 50s — it would have made far more sense in Dallas, right? — part of the plot of the movie concerns Etheline’s relationship with her long-gone-but-still-not-divorced husband and the man she may or may not marry.

Thus, one could say that Etheline is polyandrous, the possessor of more than one husband. Rendering her — and remember, this is the screenwriters’ joke, not mine — poly-Etheline.

Or, as manufacturers of plastic prefer to spell it, polyethylene. Call her the Original Inflatable Mother.

The moral, if you’re quite finished squirming over that bad pun: as funny as an oddball name may seem to the author, if it seems out of step with a character’s ostensible background, it can be a distraction from the story. (Yes, even in a comedy.) So even if you were already reader-savvy enough to axe your first idea of christening a waiter character Trey, you might also want to think twice before you allow a manuscript out the door with a name that’s too reminiscent of something else.

Unless, of course, you are a fan of plastic mothers. Enjoy the post!

So far in this series, I have bent our overall focus upon effective interview scenes — i.e., dialogue wherein one character, usually the protagonist, elicits information from another — toward one of my pet peeves, Hollywood narration. For those of you who missed the last couple of posts (hey, I’m aware that some of you are on vacation, cajoling children not to blow their fingers off with firecrackers, creating Jell-O molds, and similar Independence Day-related pursuits), Hollywood narration occurs when one character tells another something that both already know perfectly well, purely for the sake of conveying those facts to the reader.

How common, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever watched a movie or a television show starring a character who did not suffer from amnesia, you’ve almost certainly encountered some; it’s one of the standard ways that screenplays introduce background information. Because we’ve all heard so much Hollywood narration, many aspiring writers think it’s perfectly okay, if not downright clever, to fill in backstory in this manner.

The result: our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, spends day after over-caffeinated day leafing through hundreds and thousands of pages of Hollywood dialogue. Embracing it as a narrative tactic, then, is not the best means of convincing her that your writing is fresh and original.

The problem is, it’s not always a tactic. Precisely because this kind of dialogue flies at all of us from the screen every day, it’s easy to mistake for the patterns of actual speech — until, of course, a writer sits down with it and says, “All right, what is this character’s motivation for telling his long-lost aunt about his graffiti spree in 1943? Wouldn’t she already know that his father, her brother, was a wayward youth?”

Which, in case you were wondering, is the single best way to weed out Hollywood narration from a manuscript: reading every line of dialogue OUT LOUD to see if it’s plausible. Ideally, a writer would also — wait for it — perform this reading IN HARD COPY and on the manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY before submitting it to an agent, editor, or contest, but as I mentioned, it’s a holiday weekend, so I shan’t be holding you to ordinary weekday standards.

Why out loud? Well, in part, to see if speeches can be said within a single breath; in real life, dialogue tends to be. If you find yourself gasping for breath mid-paragraph, you might want to re-examine that speech to see if it rings true. Also, reading dialogue out loud is the easiest way to catch if more than one character is speaking in the same cadence — which, contrary to what the dramatic works of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin may have lead you to believe, is not how people speak on the street.

Or in offices. Or in the White House. Individual people have been known to have individual speech patterns.

There’s one other excellent reason to hear your own voice speaking the lines you have written for your characters: in this celebrity-permeated culture, many, many writers mentally cast actors they’ve seen on television or in movies as at least the major characters in their novels.

C’mon, admit it: practically every aspiring writer does it. In some ways, it’s a healthy instinct: by trying to imagine how a specific actor might sound saying a specific set of words, and how another specific actor might respond, a writer is less likely to allow the two characters speak in the same rhythms.

Unless, of course, the writer happens to cast multiple actors best associated for portraying the characters of Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet.

This practice has an unintended consequence, however: due to the pernicious ubiquity of Hollywood narration in screenplays, we’re all used to actors glibly telling one another things that their characters already know. As a result, imagining established actors speaking your dialogue may well make passages of Hollywood narration sound just fine in the mind.

It can be genuinely hard to catch on the page. Especially difficult: ferreting out what filmmakers call bad laughter, a giggle that the author did not intend for the reader to enjoy, but arise from the narrative anyway. A bad laugh can be sparked by many things, typically arises when the reader (or audience member; it’s originally a moviemaker’s term) is knocked out of the story by a glaring narrative problem: an obvious anachronism in a historical piece, for instance, or a too-hackneyed stereotype, continuity problem, or unbelievable plot twist.

Or, lest we forget, a line of dialogue that no real person placed in a similar position to the character speaking it would actually say.

It’s the kind of chuckle an audience member, reader, or — heaven forfend! — Millicent gives when an unintentionally out-of-place line of dialogue or event shatters the willing suspension of disbelief, yanking the observer out of the story and back into real life.

You know, the place where one uses one’s critical faculties to evaluate probability, rather than the desire to be entertained.

Hollywood narration is notorious for provoking bad laughter, because by this late date in storytelling history, the talkative villain, the super-informative coworker, and the married couple who congratulate themselves on their collective history have appeared so often that even if what they’re saying isn’t a cliché, the convention of having them say it is.

Take it from a familiar narrator-disguised-as-onlooker: “But wait! Up in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Superman!” Sheer repetition has made that one sound like plausible speech, hasn’t it?

To resurrect one of my all-time favorite examples of Hollywood narration’s power to jar a reader or audience member into a shout of bad laughter, last year, I was dragged kicking and screaming to a midnight showing of a Korean horror film, Epitaph, in which a good 10 out of the first 20 minutes of the film consisted of characters telling one another things they already knew. Most of the other ten consisted of silent shots of sheets blowing symbolically in the wind — in a ghost story; get it? — and characters standing frozen in front of doors and windows that they SHOULD NOT OPEN UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

I pass along this hard-earned nugget of wisdom to those of you who may not have a chance to catch the flick: should you ever find yourself in a haunted hospital in Korea, don’t touch anything with a latch and/or a doorknob. Especially if you happen to be standing in front of the body storage wall in the morgue. And don’t under any circumstances have truck with your dead mother; it will only end in tears.

Trust me on this one.

Now, I would be the first to admit that horror is not really my mug of java — I spent fully a quarter of the film with my eyes closed and ears blocked, which I suppose is actually a rather high recommendation for those fond of the genre — so I did not see every syllable of the subtitles. But the fact is, my film-going companions and I were not the only ones giggling audibly during the extensive backstory-by-dialogue marathons. An actual sample, as nearly as I can reproduce it:

Grown daughter: Dad, are you lonesome?

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (chuckling ruefully) No, of course not.

Grown daughter: You’re too hard on yourself, Dad. Stepmother had a heart condition long before you married her.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: But we were married for less than a year!

Grown daughter: You can’t blame yourself. Mother died in having me, and Stepmother had been sick for a long time. It’s not your fault. It’s nothing you did.

Doctor-who-interned-in-haunted-hospital: (clearly weighed down by Ominous Guilt) Both marriages lasted less than a year.

I’m sure that you can see the narrative problem — can you imagine a more blatant telling, rather than showing, presentation? — but the laughter from the audience was a dead giveaway that this dialogue wasn’t realistic. Bad laughter is a sure sign that the audience has been pulled out of the story.

Too addled with a surfeit of Hollywood narration to sleep — and, frankly, not overly eager to dream about a maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead mother standing by her small, terrified daughter’s hospital bed in a ward where there were NO OTHER PATIENTS — I ran home, buried myself under the covers, and reached for the nearest book to sooth my mind and distract my thoughts from the maniacally-laughing, high C-singing dead woman who was clearly lurking nearby.

As luck would have it, the volume in question was a set of Louisa May Alcott’s thrillers; I had used it as an example on this very blog not long before. Yet no sooner had I opened it when my eye fell upon this sterling opening to a story promisingly entitled THE MYSTERIOUS KEY AND WHAT IT OPENED. Because I love you people, I have excised the scant narration of the original, so you may see the dialogue shine forth in untrammeled splendor:

“This is the third time I’ve found you poring over that old rhyme. What is the charm, Richard? Not its poetry, I fancy.”

“My love, that book is a history of our family for centuries, and that old prophecy has never yet been fulfilled…I am the last Trevlyn, and as the time draws near when my child shall be born, I naturally think of the future, and hope he will enjoy his heritage in peace.”

“God grant it!” softly echoed Lady Trevlyn, adding, with a look askance at the old book, “I read that history once, and fancied it must be a romance, such dreadful things are recorded in it. Is it all true, Richard?”

“Yes, dear. I wish it was not. Ours has been a wild, unhappy race till the last generation or two. The stormy nature came in with the old Sir Ralph, the fierce Norman knight, who killed his only sun in a fit of wrath, by a glow with his steel gauntlet, because the boy’s strong will would not yield to his.”

“Yes, I remember, and his daughter Clotilde held the castle during a siege, and married her cousin, Count Hugo. ‘Tis a warlike race, and I like it in spite of the mad deeds.”

“Married her cousin! That has been the bane of our family in times past. Being too proud to mate elsewhere, we have kept to ourselves till idiots and lunatics began to appear. My father was the first who broke the law among us, and I followed his example: choosing the freshest, sturdiest flower I could find to transplant into our exhausted soil.”

“I hope it will do you honor by blossoming bravely. I never forget that you took me from a very humble home, and have made me the happiest wife in England.”

“And I never forget that you, a girl of eighteen, consented to leave your hills and come to cheer the long-deserted house of an old man like me,” her husband returned fondly.

“Nay, don’t call yourself old, Richard; you are only forty-five, the boldest, handsomest man in Warwickshire. But lately you look worried; what is it? Tell me, and let me advise or comfort you.”

“It is nothing, Alice, except my natural anxiety for you…”

By this point in the text, tangling with the maniacally-laughing, operatic dead harpy was beginning to look significantly better to me. Clearly, the universe was nudging me to set forth again like the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to warn writers to alter their sinful ways before it was too late.

But if I had the resources to commission Gregory Peck and Kate Winslet to read those very lines to you, I think it’s a fairly safe bet that they wouldn’t have struck you as so clearly contrived. It’s their job to make speeches seem plausible, after all, and they have, bless their respective hearts and muses, given us all abundant reason to expect them to be very, very good at it.

So are theirs really the best voices to employ in your head to read your dialogue back to you?

Just in case anyone out there didn’t spot the logic problem above: generally speaking, in real life, people do not recite their basic background information to kith and kin that they see on a daily basis. Unless someone is having serious memory problems (see earlier quip about amnesiac characters), it is culturally accepted that when a person repeats his own anecdotes, people around him will stop him before he finishes.

Because, among other things, it’s BORING.

Yet time and again in print, writers depict characters wandering around, spouting their own résumés without any social repercussions. Not to mention listing one another’s physical and mental attributes, informing each other of their respective ages and marital histories, listing the articles of furniture in the room, placing themselves on a map of the world, and all of the other descriptive delights we saw above.

So yes, you’re going to find examples in print occasionally; as we may see from Aunt Louisa’s example, authors have been using characters as mouthpieces for background for an awfully long time. Dickens was one of the all-time worst violators of the show, don’t tell rule, after all. Since the rise of television and movies — and going back even farther, radio plays — certain types of Hollywood narration have abounded in manuscripts.

See dialogue above, lifted from the Korean horror movie. Or any of the films of Stephen Spielberg — but of that notorious Hollywood narrator, more below.

There’s another way in which movies and TV have warped the cultural understanding of storytelling, and thus prompted many aspiring writers to incorporate Hollywood Narration in their manuscripts, to Millicent’s teeth-gnashing chagrin. As I pointed out yesterday, openings of novels are more likely to contain Hollywood narration than any other point in a book, because of the writer’s perceived imperative to provide all necessary backstory — and usually physical description of the main characters and environment as well — the nanosecond that the story begins.

Here again, we see the influence of film upon writing norms: since film is a visual medium, we audience members have grown accustomed to learning precisely what a character looks like within seconds of his first appearance. We’ve all grown accustomed to this storytelling convention, right? Yet in a manuscript, there’s seldom a good narrative reason to provide all of this information to the reader right off the bat.

Listen: TV and movies are technically constrained media; they rely upon only the senses of sight and sound to tell their stories. While a novelist can use scents, tastes, or physical sensations to evoke memories and reactions in her characters as well, a screenwriter can only use visual and auditory cues. A radio writer is even more limited, because ALL of the information has to be conveyed through sound.

So writers for film, TV, and radio have a pretty good excuse for utilizing Hollywood narration, right? Whatever they cannot show, they must perforce have a character (or a voice-over) tell.

Generally speaking — fasten your seatbelts; this is going to be a pretty sweeping generalization, and I don’t want any of you to be washed overboard by it — a screenplay that can tell its story through sight and sound with little or no unobtrusive Hollywood narration is going to speak to the viewer better than, to put it bluntly, characters launching upon long lectures about what happened when.

Unfortunately for the current state of literature, I gather that not all movie producers share my view on the subject. How many times, for instance, have you spent the first twenty minutes of a film either listening to voice-over narration setting up the premise (do I hear a cheer for the otherwise excellent THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, where an unseen but undoubtedly huge and Godlike Alec Baldwin told us all we needed to know? Anybody?) or listening to the protagonist fill in the nearest total stranger on his background and goals?

Again, in film, it’s an accepted convention; movies have trained their audiences to continue to suspend their disbelief in the face of, among other things, giant-voiced Alec Baldwins in the Sky. It’s shorthand, a quick way to skip over action that might not be all that interesting to see played out. Here’s a very common opening gambit:

Pretty neighbor (noticing the fact that our hero is toting several boxes clearly marked ACME MOVING AND STORAGE): “So, are you just moving into the building?”

Hunky hero (leaning against the nearest doorjamb, which happens to be beautifully lit, as doorjambs so frequently are): “Yeah, I just drove in from Tulsa today. This is my first time living in the big city. When my girlfriend left me, I just tossed everything I owned into the car and drove as far as I could.”

Pretty neighbor (stepping into his good lighting as much as possible): “Well, I’m a New York native. Maybe I could show you around town.”

Hunky hero: “Well, since you’re the first kind face I’ve seen here, let me take you to dinner. I haven’t eaten anything but truck stop food in days.”

Now, this economical (if trite) little exchange conveyed a heck of a lot of information, didn’t it? It established that both Hunky and Pretty live in the same building in New York, that he is from the Midwest and she from the aforementioned big city (setting up an automatic source of conflict in ideas of how life should be lived, if they should get romantically involved), that he has a car (not a foregone conclusion in NYC), that they are attracted to each other, and that he, at least, is romantically available.

What will happen? Oh, WHAT will happen?

When the scene is actually filmed, call me nutty, but I suspect that this chunk of dialogue will be accompanied by visual clues to establish that these two people are rather attractive as well; their clothing, hairstyles, and accents will give hints as to their respective professions, upbringings, socioeconomic status, and educational attainments.

Writers of books, having been steeped for so many years in the TV/movie/radio culture, sometimes come to believe that such terse conveyance of information is nifty — especially the part where the audience learns everything relevant about the couple within the first couple of minutes of the story. They wish to emulate it, and where restraint is used, delivering information through dialogue is a legitimate technique.

The problem is, on film, it often isn’t used with restraint — and writers of books have caught that, too. It drives the Millicents of the worlds nuts, because she, I assure you, will not automatically cast Johnny Depp as your protagonist — or voiceover artist — in her mind. She will respond not as a filmgoer, but as a reader.

Oh, wait, I’m talking about Hollywood narration again, amn’t I? Funny how I keep getting goaded into that. Keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VI: but how do I TALK about my book without making it sound like it goes on endlessly?

April 26th, 2010

radiator in Victoria

Before I begin today, a brief word to the silly people who keep posting parts of readers’ old comments as fresh comments, in an attempt to imbed links on this site: first, you’re assuming that I won’t remember the real comments from the first time they posted; I do. Second, if you’re trying to trick me into letting ‘em by, you might want to avoid using comments I posted myself.

Seriously, this has happened 50 times over the last couple of days. So if you see your own comment showing up twice, let me know that one got through my shielding.

But enough about stupid marketing tactics for today. Let’s talk about some smart ones. During our recent discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, reader AM made a great suggestion:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

See, spam marketers? There is a polite way to get my attention. Now if I can make my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right to AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

What AM is talking about, of course, is not the entire query letter, but that pesky paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about. You know, the second paragraph of a standard query letter, or the third paragraph of this one:

mars query

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing that paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent the agency screener into asking to see the manuscript.

Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query letter or pitch, right? I said: right?

If you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Most queriers and pitchers new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query or pitch is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal he hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor — and the assumption renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder, the sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this much more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:
an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. Or, to put it querying terms, the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant in a dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, okay: so that’s a pretty jaded response. And the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. (I’m looking at YOU, prose-stealing spammers!) “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take, for example, what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed him and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to see it.) See how the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s beauty, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the protagonists and their initial conflicts. And I haven’t gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. Even starting 2/3rds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, it completely got rid of Lee and transformed Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a pity, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in Uncle John’s place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts. As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how he intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise — as is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query or pitch, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story; leave Millicent curious to hear more.

But is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Does that sound like an oxymoron? Allow me to explain.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative. (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be pitched as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and pitch that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than other omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person? Or that you’ve chosen to tell the story from seven different perspectives.

In case the answer isn’t obvious: no, you shouldn’t. You’re not there to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a happy surprise at manuscript-reading time.

Yes, yes, I know: when you describe your novel to another writer, the first thing you say is, “Well, it’s got three protagonists…” but that’s going to sound like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince Millicent that this is a story she should read.

Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that. At the querying stage, how a writer chooses to tell a story is far less relevant than the story itself.

Before anyone steps up onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me show you why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms.

At the risk of repeating myself: tell Millicent a compelling story. Let the narrative choices reveal themselves when the agent reads your manuscript — long after your query has been received and answered.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can see that I should plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, oh sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Well, that should give you quite a bit of food for thought between now and my next post…wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

Ponder all of this until next time, please, when I’ll be talking about how to pitch a multiple-protagonist novel. Keep up the good work!

More of those telling details lifted from real life, or, well-mannered camel seeks wiser man

December 21st, 2009

camel in profile

Last time, in the midst of indulging my passion for telling details, I forgot to tell you about my recent holiday encounter with the camel pictured above. If this isn’t a story where the specifics provide all of the characterization needed…well, I let you judge for yourself. While you’re at it, why not continue our ongoing tradition of figuring out what editorial tweaks could improve the story?

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer have been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — has plastered the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

I watched scores of children fling hay at them, shouting, “Hey, Reindeer!” (or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before), but the trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

One small pink-clad screamer simply would not leave the animals alone, however. She kicked at the metal fencing, bellowing words I was a surprised a kindergartener would be able to use correctly in a sentence. When she picked up a rock, I wandered over to the fence to distract her with a hastily-constructed fairy tale about our barnyard friends. And camels.

Almost immediately, a bulbous man in shorts and a t-shirt appeared by my side. Despite ambient cold that left our breath visible, his exposed arms and legs were not even goose-bumped. “Come over here,” he barked at the little girl, dragging her along the fence until they were directly in front of Curly.

Was he going to make her apologize to the camel? I doubted Curly would appreciate it.

Releasing the quivering child, the man — whose clothing, I noticed, was emblazoned with advertisements for a local band and Nike, not the nursery — abruptly reached up and over the chain-link fence, snapping his fingers. Placidly, Curly dipped his head, extending his hyper-mobile lips toward the hand.

Curious to hear what happened next, aren’t you? That’s a good indicator that a scene is paced well. See how selecting those details carefully, as we discussed yesterday, as well as not over-burdening the text with explanations, can increase suspense while simultaneously moving the plot along?

So why, I ask you, would our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, have stopped reading part-way through paragraph #2? Because, I assure you, most Millicents would have: one of her most notorious pet peeves has reared its ugly head here.

If you pointed out that the narration switched tenses between the first and second paragraphs, congratulations! Paragraph #1 is in the present tense; paragraph #2 is in the past. Submissions and contest entries do that all the time. Sometimes, they even switch back within a paragraph or two.

Already, I can spot some raised hands out there. “But Anne,” adherents of variable tenses point out, and with some reason, “Paragraph #1 describes an ongoing condition, while paragraph #2 on focuses upon one-time events. Doesn’t that mean that the tense choices here are appropriate, or at least defensible?”

Good question, tense-switchers. Remember how I mentioned earlier in this series on self-editing that professional readers — agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, etc. — are trained to spot redundancies in a manuscript? They’re also taught to leap upon inconsistencies.

In other words, Millicent is likely to assume that the change of tense is not the result of well thought-out authorial choice, but simply a mistake that did not get caught in the proofreading process. And, like other commonly-made errors, the tense inconsistency may well jar her out of the flow of the story. Next!

You habitual tense-switchers are not particularly happy with that answer, are you? “Okay, so she’s detail-oriented, but this isn’t a writing mistake; this is a stylistic choice. So why would Millicent be annoyed by it?”

On its face, your logic is pretty sound, tense-switchers: it would indeed be possible, within the context of a civil conversation between author and reader, to justify the tense choices in the example above. A writer could very likely win an argument with, say, a writing teacher, critique group, or even an editor about keeping the switch in the text. But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to submit pages with tense inconsistencies to Millicent — or to her aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: because the writer is seldom present when an agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge encounters his manuscript for the first time. Successful manuscripts and contest entries are thus those that do not require additional verbal explanation.

So even if the writer is technically correct, if a tense switch seems unjustified to Millicent — if it appears to be, say, an incomplete revision between a manuscript originally in the present tense and a subsequent draft in the past, or vice-versa — that’s usually the ball game. Why risk it?

Especially when, as in this case, making the tense consistent does not detract at all from either the meaning or the voice of the section. Lookee:

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer had been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plastered the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

I watched scores of children fling hay at them, shouting, “Hey, Reindeer!” (or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before), but the trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

That’s as painless a revision as you’re ever likely to see, folks. It just requires a good proofreading eye to catch — and need I even add that this variety of inconsistency is easiest to catch if one reads one’s submission or contest entry IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD?

I thought not. Let’s move on with the story, to see if we can catch any other Millicent-displeasers.

Delicately, politely, as if he were extracting an egg from beneath a mother hen, Curly took the man’s fingers into his gargantuan mouth. The hand did not budge. Curly paused meditatively for a few seconds, tasting, then sucked the hand into his mouth up to the elbow.

Instinctively, I took a step toward the child: if the object lesson about the dangers of violating animals’ personal space was about to go horribly awry, the least I could do was shield her from seeing the bloody denouement.

The man waved me back with his free hand. “See, Tanya?” he told the saucer-eyed girl. “They like people. If you treat them nicely, they’ll treat you nicely.”

“That’s right, sweetie.” A stringy-haired woman called from the nearby wreath display. “Be nice to the animals, and they’ll never hurt you.”

“You just have to learn what they like.” A helpful bystander kicked a crate toward the man’s feet, so he could follow his arm skyward. “Camels love sucking on things.”

Mentally, I began taking notes, in preparation for my inevitable testimony at a lawsuit. “I think she’s got the point. Maybe it’s time to back off now?”

Okay, what’s the problem this time? Hint: it’s even more subtle than the last.

No? What about all of that redundancy in the dialogue?

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” several exclaim, “that’s how people talk in real life! You’re not gearing up to tell us that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Um, sort of. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on. Or just plain boring.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send the entire Little Old Lady Mafia on annual vacations there.

Do I see a raised hand or two out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “haven’t we already talked about this in this series? Just as absolutely faithful recreations of real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing a nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers also tend to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect.

Or, as Millicent likes to put it, “Move ON with it!”

Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge. (Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it.) To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missie.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”

“Go!”

“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate.

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character from the author’s past? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina ever showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she ever appeared again?

Actually, that was a trick set of questions, because the answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response. Fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary. That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question.

In other words, this is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon: because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well.

But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion…or any other. It’s just an anecdote.

Most self-editing writers wouldn’t notice this narrative lack — any guesses why?

If you said it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, run out and get yourself a chocolate sundae with jimmies on top. In his mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange, in case you were wondering, is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. But if I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, I’m going to have to do quite a bit more character development.

Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

Of course, we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf wrote, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in on the page.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

A good third of the dialogue Millicent sees runs approximately like this. Understand now why she might become just a tad touchy at the sight of dialogue that provides neither character development nor moves the plot along?

As a general rule of thumb, I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, or, often, um. Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known writer of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Hard to argue with that, eh? Yet, like most writers receiving critical feedback, I fought it at first. Since the dialogue in my advisor’s published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to “Write as I do”? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. If it isn’t either interesting or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

One more insight, then I’m done for the day: you’ve been having just a little trouble paying attention to my arguments, haven’t you? Some part of your mind has been distracted, wondering what happened to the arm in the camel’s mouth?

That, my friends, is how Millicent — and most other readers, professional and non-pro alike — feels when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. “Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now.

Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense. In the case of my camel story, now would be a good time.

“Give me a boost,” the man asked calmly, but his eyes were beaming panic over his daughter’s head. Curly’s lips were exploring the first few inches of his t-shirt sleeve.

The crate-kicker and I complied. With his uneaten hand, he began tickling the camel’s lips, rubbing the gums as if he were a mammalian dentist. Curly face elongated, as though he were going to sneeze. A loud pop, a slurp, and the man was freed.

He strutted his way down from the crate. “See?” he told the girl. “If you know what you’re doing, they won’t hurt you.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, staring aghast at his friction-reddened arm.

The moral, if I may venture one: just because something seems like a good idea at first blush doesn’t mean that it’s worth stubbornly adhering to it. One of the keys to successful self-editing is flexibility.

That, and keeping any parts of your body involved in typing out of animals’ mouths. Keep up the good work!

Pillory This, by guest blogger Flavia Alaya

September 4th, 2009

under the rose alaya coverPhoto:  Ellen Denuto

Hello, campers –

Yes, I know: we’ve been trying to polish off our ongoing series on polishing up a query letter, but now that the holiday weekend is upon us, I thought we should pause, take a breath, and celebrate just how much work all of you have done throughout this series — or, depending upon your reading habits, give some of you time to catch up. Hey, query-writing is hard stuff.

Which is why I am so delighted to bring you my promised reward for virtue: a fascinating post on dealing with having one’s book reviewed by memoirist and nonfiction writer Flavia Alaya, author of the incredibly brave and revealing UNDER THE ROSE: A CONFESSION, among many, many other works. (Seriously, her bio will astound you — see the end of this post.) From the publisher’s blurb:

Beneath its “scandalous” surface, Flavia Alaya’s story goes to the heart of women’s struggles for independence, self-definition, and sexual agency. When she first met Father Harry Browne, Alaya was a vibrant but sheltered young woman on a Fulbright scholarship to Italy. When the attraction that began in a cafe in Perugia became too compelling to resist, they embarked on a love affair that violated some of the deepest taboos of society, the Church, and her Italian American family, yet endured for over two decades, through years of shared dedication to social activism and through the birth of three children.

Intriguing, no? From the slightly more revealing Library Journal review:

At 22 years of age, in a cafe in Italy, Alaya met fellow Fulbright recipient Harry Browne, 16 years her senior. Raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Browne was a social activist, a historian — and a Catholic priest. Their relationship endured for over 20 years, producing three children and seemingly sustaining both extraordinary parties quite well. Not a martyr to love, Alaya was able to hold onto independence and self-possession while experiencing a profoundly passionate attachment to a fascinating human being. Through the bonding of social activism, Browne and Alaya weathered many civil rights storms, the 1960s antiwar movement, and a grass-roots campaign against a New York real estate grab. Browne championed the poor and fought to better their housing situation; Alaya wrote scholarly articles on 19th-century literature. The relationship’s secrecy (it was hidden “under the rose”), its continual trials and stress, and the ousting of Browne as priest when it was discovered pull the reader along for the ride with elegiac style.

And the still more descriptive ForeWord review:

She was a twenty-two-year-old Fulbright scholar from New York fleeing her immigrant Italian family’s claustrophobic love, he was a thirty-eight year old Catholic priest from the city’s Irish tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, researching Church archives. They met in a Perugia café in 1957: a thunderbolt, opera’s grand coup de foudre of destiny.

Their affair, shamelessly shameful, was to be sub rosa, under Cupid’s rose of secrecy. In small rented rooms, in the fervid, emotive culture, Italy itself seemed to become their duenna and collaborator. They returned to New York, she to an apartment on the Upper West Side, he (as fate would have it) to a parish blocks away, the fiction of their friendship so carefully maintained that not even her own family knew the father of her children. Ironically, their private war against the Church’s conservative patriarchy augured the decade’s larger battles of civil disobedience and feminist freedom. With their own adopted neighborhood soon slated for massive urban renewal, which would displace so many working poor, Father Harry Browne moved quickly into political activism. (It was in Father Browne’s office that the FBI arrested Father Berrigan, notorious for burning Pentagon draft records to protest the Vietnam War.) Thus, as in opera as in life, love and politics are ever held close, one of the many paradoxes Alaya so lovingly, so wisely ponders in Under the Rose.

Those asking for theology or psychotherapy may be disappointed, but those asking for well-written honesty will be handsomely rewarded. In a poignant, lucid language that combines the pace of fiction with the intimacy of a love letter, her “memory-ghosts” bring private and social history to full circle, the story of an immigrant’s search for freedom of expression. Under the Rose is the very model of memoir writing, of a woman’s voice finally finding perfect pitch.

Why am I showing you three different plot summaries, you ask, rather than just the usual publisher’s blurb? For a couple of reasons, one pertaining to our series-in-progress, one to today’s topic.

First, did you notice anything about those three descriptions of the same book? The first two were of reasonable lengths to use as the summary paragraph of a query letter — 99 and 162 words, respectively. So what makes the first strong back jacket copy, but the second a better bet for a query or pitch?

If you immediately cried, “By gum, Anne, the vivid details in the second!” give yourself a gold star for the week: you’ve been paying attention. The specifics really make a difference in the storytelling department, don’t they, even in so short a piece?

If you also shouted, “The blurb reviews, while the second demonstrates why a reader might be interested in the book,” award yourself a second gold star. Heck, take yourself out for an ice cream sundae: that was an astute observation.

But wait; today’s pop quiz is not over yet. Since the first two descriptions illustrated my ongoing point so beautifully, any guesses about why I saw fit to include the third?

Hint: the answer lies in the word count.

Okay, I’ll just give you this one: at 302 words, it would make a pretty good 1-page synopsis. You know, the kind that agencies’ websites and agency guides’ listings keep asking writers of 350-page books to send with their queries and/or pages. True, the last paragraph is pure review, as is the last sentence of the second.

But it just goes to show you: it is indeed possible to give the contours of a story in that number of words without resorting to blurry generalities. No matter how many times you re-checked that requirement on the agent of your dreams’ website, hoping you had misread it, it’s actually not all that unreasonable a request.

The second reason to walk you through all of those reviews was even more straightforward: Flavia’s going to talk to us today about what it’s like to get a book reviewed. And not necessarily nicely.

One of the classic writerly fears, right? Flavia is going to tell us how to confront it straight-on, instead of running away screaming.

I’m very excited about this guest post, and not merely because, as those of you who have been dropping by Author! Author! for a while are no doubt already aware, I’m a huge fan of wrestling those big, bad writerly fears out into the open, examining them thoroughly, and talking about how to deal with them practically. There’s been a lot of talk on the conference circuit lately about career writers, the kind who have more than one book in ‘em.

Career writers’ work used to be considered the backbone of the publishing business, you know. A blockbuster may sell a million copies on a fluke, but authors whose established readerships kept returning for subsequent books provide publishers with consistent, relatively predictable income. With the decline of the multi-book contract, however, many agents in recent years had become less interested in hearing about a prospective clients’ other book ideas than in whether the manuscript in front of them might be the next breakout hit.

With the economic downturn, however, the phrase career writer has been turning up on more and more lips. It’s not even all that unusual these days for agents to ask newly-signed clients to come up with one-paragraph descriptions of their next three or four projects, just to have at the ready in case an editor impressed with a manuscript asks.

Don’t tense up; start brainstorming.

As this trend has been heating up in recent months, I’ve been eagerly blandishing career writers to come and share their insights with our little writing community. You want to know what a long-term career strategy looks like, don’t you?

So please join me in welcoming Flavia Alaya, career writer and memoirist extraordinaire. But before I hand you over to her, let me add: UNDER THE ROSE is available on Amazon and, of course, directly from the publisher. Oh, and that lovely photo of Flavia above was taken by Ellen Denuto.

Take it away, Flavia!

under the rose alaya covermilk-of-almonds-cover-alayareconciling-catholicism-coverunder-the-rose-alaya-cover-2

Under the Rose is memoir as collage—less in style than in process. When it began its manuscript life, the book was the relatively brief and tidy account (with a few flashbacks) of my first 13 or so years with Harry, in Italy, then in New York—essentially our secret life together…sub rosa, or “under the rose.” When the manuscript (which was sold three times over 16 years of writing and rewriting—long story!) was finally acquired by The Feminist Press and positioned for their Cross-cultural Memoir Series, publisher Florence Howe asked to see the core theme in the context of a “life.” This meant weaving two or three more complex narratives into the original—the back-stories (what was it in both our early lives made us able to tolerate, maybe even need, that kind of secrecy?) and the post- and post-post-scripts: how we both met the critical test of going public, and then how I faced life without him when he died.

A challenge. Many challenges. First, unpacking more hard truths about my family—and his—than I’d ever intended to. Then (harder) untangling the sticky weave of that final public decade together in the ‘70s, when we struggled to float the flimsy raft of a “liberated” partnership—with three small kids nailed to it—through virtual tsunamis of academic and ecclesiastical politics. Not only did I have to tear the book apart and reassemble it. I had to back off from it. I had to take the entire project (which had seemed so obvious and simple, once) more seriously…and myself less. Much less.

Which is one reason this review struck me as so baffling:

What is the point of her ‘confession’? That she’s a good and put-upon person? If so, it is better left to others to make the point for her; none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness.

A bite, a mere rebarbative nine-year-old mouthful of what used to be standard Barbara Grizzuti Harrison agita in The New York Times Book Review…except that it was directed at me and my memoir.

Baffling. Because if I’d had my way, Under the Rose would have been subtitled, with obvious irony: “A Life in Six Operas.” Even the present “Confession” has its edge—absolution was the last thing I was looking for! But here was the Press again, hoping a more salty subtitle might trump their off-putting imprint and win them some new readers. Inside, however, opera names still define the book’s six parts (Tosca, Gioconda, Traviata, etc.), and adjust the tone (or so I thought) in two self-satirical ways, denoting the spectacular Italian American family culture I grew up in, first, and then caricaturing the over-the-top romanticism I’d internalized with it. Maybe it was a complex way to suggest, as a part of the theme, why my inner diva took so very long to outgrow, and why it cost so much tearing of heart muscle. But I didn’t think it inaccessible, especially to a Times reviewer.

On the other hand…

Well, on the other hand, Harry was a very funny man. You couldn’t take him anywhere—not without pulling a crowd that would quickly be doubled over in bodily pain. No invidious comparisons with great Italian literature are intended, but maybe Under the Rose should come with a warning label: if clerical sex doesn’t make you laugh, close the book. Or burn it.

I girded myself to reread the review for this blog, but I was sure I could deal with it. I was way too sensitive then. And besides, she’s dead. And besides, nine years is long enough.

But no, the bloody thing still had its ghoulish way with me, like a Dracula lover. Be objective, I tell myself. And I am. Objectively, it must be one of the most venomous reviews of a memoir ever to appear in The New York Times Book Review. OK, limit the sample to ex-editor Charlie McGrath’s wrathful-God Book Review universe, where there were body-counts. The citation still stings.

Right now, you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking it would be really nice if you’d take my word for it, but I bet you feel double-dared to go and read it. Well, damn you, go ahead. But come back afterward, because that review never should have been the end of it—not for me, but not even for her.

Here it is.

OK. Agree with me on this, that what Harrison’s maundering few-hundred words are unleashing is disgust, a given, a natural response to the book’s basic and objectively revolting premise, that I actually had an underground career as a priest’s “wife.” Well, it is objectively revolting, isn’t it? For an Opus Dei sort like herself, of whom it could be said—and was—that the Curia was kindlier and less Roman? Please.

And now, seeing as Roman is the only form of Catholicism to demand a pretense of lifelong eunuchry in its priesthood, channel the fair-minded editor of the Book Review assigning the book to her: who could be more qualified to review a challenge to the ideal of Catholic celibacy? Let her rip! “Fortunately Alaya loves herself sufficiently, {sic} to relieve the reviewer of any obligation to protect her ego.”

Ah, what fortress faith, what crusading passion, to crush the nano-flash of pity that inspired that line. I still find it hard to get past it.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #1:
A brutal review goes straight to your voice. For a while it’s as if somebody has carved out your larynx with a bread-knife and you keep on trying to make the breath you still push through the replacement tube sound like you.

For years I’ve twitched whenever people said they’d come across that review on the web. Sure, I was onto Grizzuti’s rap-sheet as hitwoman, but what was I supposed to say? That she’d slashed the likes of Joan Didion and Spike Lee too, and look at the company I’m in?

There are some reviews you should never read twice, unless you have another larynx to turn. No, nine years are not enough. And now Google can serve up Grizzuti’s little murder, on demand, to me or anybody looking for me, almost always at the top of the hit-list. Maybe forever—all the forever that matters to a writer.

There’s a silly analogy to Keats’s urn in here somewhere. Instead of those lovers forever yearning toward each other to the sound of a silent flute, there’s this worthless writer forever pinioned by this bloody reviewer’s disgust, somehow never able to “love herself sufficiently” to get outside that shell of ego-protecting denial.

But…

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom # 2:
You don’t stop talking just because you get told to shut up. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that you don’t. And, yes, you probably shouldn’t.

Maybe stories like this don’t end till you really go silent. As self-writing goes, let’s just say I’m probably at the end of the middle of whatever story this is, where I gravitate to scholars of autobiography and reflect on their wisdom. Lauren Berlant is one. She says in pretty good academy-speak that to write the self is to try to create “a spectacular interiority worthy of public notice” (The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, 1997).

I love the compression of this. Right at the top it says that you’re making a spectacle of yourself, which I admit I have done, and still do.

But the “worthy of public notice” part? That’s the paradox for Berlant to unfold. If the interior self you’re exposing isn’t normative, if it’s different in a way not embraced by the larger culture, or if what you’re exposing—maybe a hidden truth or reality, an injustice—is something the majority culture (or somebody in its service) would rather not see exposed, then it’s difficult to make it “worthy” of public notice, isn’t it.

Except perhaps over time, and in this sense, to write the truly “spectacular” self is to write to the future. Because as you write it, in that time, it must be by definition unworthy, and by somebody’s standards even shameful, or better, shameless. Something to be pilloried, in service to the spectacle of your shamelessness.

Pillory this. Grizzuti and the Times did, bless ‘em, and I guess from that perspective there‘s an edge of flattery in it. Otherwise, why me? Under the Rose, my first non-academic book, had come out of CUNY’s Feminist Press, so minor and semi-academic a publishing house by Times standards that not one of its best books had yet had a single dedicated review within their pages. Mine should have been an equivalent non-event, yet they gave it a full-page that Sunday, with artwork, no less, page 9.

John Updike was there a week later.

Maybe BGH hated my book for good literary reasons, but I doubt it. Her deft surgical skills were simply at the service of a special version of the normative—hers, of course, but also the Times‘ then, before the scandals that made Catholic pretensions to purity fair game. You and I know that if it were true that “none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness,” there’d be a lot fewer book reviews than memoirs.

This is good to remember, to score up there on the wall (as one of my writer-friends does) with other great self-help mantras. It also self-helped (it still does) that Under the Rose went to press with the imprimaturs not just of Marilyn French but of Nuala O’Faolain and Sandra Gilbert, both brilliant memoirists, both sometime Catholics, and both household saints in my calendar. I wonder by my own litmus test whether I really was “writing to the future” if some pretty testy other reviewers said some pretty nice things about Under the Rose in some pretty good places.

But back then, of course, in the fresh wake of Grizzuti, it didn’t matter who liked it. Behind that thick bark of ego she gave me there was barely a trickle of self-love left for savoring praise. Only weeks before that review was published my father had died—the patriarch who’d figured so huge in my story that I’d once actually thought of calling it Father—and the very Sunday it appeared I was in flight to California to help empty his house.

For a while, I’d say his death probably silenced me more than Grizzuti. Remembering it now makes me wonder what else I lost, or had to lose? Well, some things I thought I wanted, like the respect of my academic colleagues, the more careerist of whom instantly smelled Times roadkill and cut me off. It took awhile for me to see that academic cachet was something I’d already begun to de-value—otherwise why write a memoir in the first place? Maybe they’d known that before I did.

Could be, then, whatever else I lost, whatever still hangs somewhere in that vague .alt universe, was some of the same stuff—stuff I only thought I wanted.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #3:
We have more than one life to live, and more than one voice to give.

I had a lot of possible voices from the beginning. So it could be that the right analogy for that review was not a laryngectomy but a stink-bomb. It emptied the building. But it didn’t take long to hear the riot of squatters rumbling up the stairs to fill the place. All those voices! They may have been attached to the same maimed name, but they had something, spectacular or not, still left in them to say.

milk-of-almonds-cover-alaya

I was nearly immediately invited to contribute to two anthologies, one a group of Italian American women writing on food and culture (a short story, “Love Lettuce,” to The Milk of Almonds (Feminist Press, 2002); and an essay for a gathering of mostly Catholic feminists on their complicated attachments to the Church (“The Elephant is Slow to Mate” in Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism?, the University of Notre Dame Press, 2003, a publication that, by the way, merits a special little Grizzuti-star).

reconciling-catholicism-cover

But my favorite re-gift came from an Italian scholar with a passion for sex and the sacred, Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, who trumped the grimly silent Academy (and it must be my formidable ego that makes me LOVE to repeat this story) by making Under the Rose a cameo text at a conference session of the MLA’s annual meeting in New York. (Serena is a serious trip: see her own memoir, Eros: A Journey of Multiple Loves, 2006, and her website.)

eros-jacket-1

And then, as you know, the future—or one of the futures—I was writing to came maybe sooner than anybody expected, and what is fondly termed the Priestly Pedophilia Scandal burst on the culture scene.

Almost immediately, a Dublin publisher (New Island Press) contracted to do their own edition of Under the Rose.

under-the-rose-alaya-cover-2

Whereupon the Irish—who live in such an intimately conflicted family relationship with the Church, bought it, read it, reviewed it (quite soberly and generously), eventually made a half-hour TV movie about it, and seemed generally delighted to deflect attention away from the boys, and in the direction of my consensual, heterosexual, and mostly cavorting relationship with an utterly charismatic, brilliantly political, and howlingly funny Irish-American person who was, as it happened, also a priest “to the bone.”

Still, I have never published another book. Those “squatter” voices, a half-dozen or so like this one, slip in and slip away. Some are quite true, not ringers, slowly reclaiming the place now that the furniture in the apartment is a bit ratty but less odiferous.

I keep telling myself I have to get some new furniture. Or a whole new apartment—my ever recidivist self-love certain that there’s an absolutely brilliant historical novel in me…or maybe a series of murder mysteries, a theme on which I’ve become more expert with time.

But I cannot tell a lie. I was probably never meant to tell anything but true stories, truly. I regret that I didn’t devote more craft to making my one big book three smaller and better ones. And now I’d love to pull together a collection of hilariously picaresque true tales about my rogue of a lover-husband on this, my second time around.

flavia-and-husband

FLAVIA ALAYA, who dubs herself “a writer of all work,” professed cultural history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and helped found its original School of Intercultural Studies. (Sub)versions of infamy and secrecy attract her: her first book, a Harvard Press biography of Anglo-Scot writer William Sharp, is the still-standard account of his masquerade as a female poet (“Fiona Macleod”). Later work pioneered a feminist revaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the disparaged English poet who was, of course, also a consummate (if more discreet) memoirist.

But a little like Elizabeth, Flavia has always been too love-struck for the perfect feminist, and when her partner, star labor and immigration historian—and Roman Catholic priest—Harry Browne, died of leukemia in 1980, the project of writing about him—about them—seemed a way to prolong their life together. The adventures detailed inside this memoir made for a rocky manuscript adventure outside it that didn’t end (as you’ll see) with its publication by the Feminist Press in 1999.

But the “writer of all work” scrubs on, maybe more in the kitchen than the front parlor. As a civil rights advocate post-9/11 she wrote immigration detention exposés (and recounted anti-detention street activism) for the online journal CounterPunch. But always under the spell of city life and culture, her skills have turned not just to preservation activism but to “scripting the (local) landscape” as a form of community resistance to change, a vaguely subversive culture underground. From New York’s West Side to Paterson, New Jersey, small books—hidden histories revealed—like Gaetano Federici: The Artist as Historian, Silk and Sandstone, and Bridge Street to Freedom (a multi-layered account of the landmarking of a station of the Underground Railroad) have become a favorite medium. In collaboration with a local sports maven, she recently unpacked the lively story of Paterson’s Depression-era Negro Leagues stadium into a successful National Register application and a website.

Two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation writing fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center helped complete her memoir and then carry forward a draft novel on the life and amazing disappeared career of Joseph McDonnell, once-flamboyant Fenian, cofounder of the First International, editor of the long-lived Paterson Labor Standard, and pioneer author of the first progressive labor legislation in New Jersey. She has paused in this unfinished business to script narratives of industrial, labor and women’s history into the landscape of Bridgeton, New Jersey, her new base, as well as home of the largest historic district in the state.

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