Hello, readers —
I’ve been trying very hard indeed to glean as much information from my memoir’s current trauma (for hypothetical details, see the post before last; it’s a serious crisis) as I can to pass on to you. Regardless of whether the book is ultimately published or not, I want to make sure that we can all learn something from the experience. Otherwise, it’s just Anne’s Little Problem, and the next nonfiction writer among us who finds herself sued will come to this situation as innocent as I did. So here are a few lessons I have learned in the past eight months:
1. Never, ever show a memoir to anyone mentioned in it.
Actually, other writers had been telling me this for years, but silly me, I didn’t listen. The people currently taking umbrage at my book were friends of mine, I thought, and they asked very pointedly to read it before I sent it to my editor. They also swore up and down that they did not want to censor my work in any way (that’s a quote from an e-mail, incidentally), and said that they were genuinely eager to hear my point of view.
As it turns out, they weren’t.
The lesson to learn from this: people’s stated reasons for wanting to read your book may not be their actual reasons. I was naïve. You are never under any legal obligation to show a draft of your work to anyone mentioned in it; in fact, most publishers would actively prefer that you did not.
2. A mentioned person’s perception of how important a character she is in the book is very seldom accurate. Even a barely-visible character may see herself as the protagonist.
This is particularly stark in the case of my memoir, as it is legally impossible to either slander or libel a dead person, and most of the major characters in my book are no longer living. Therefore, any objection must be based solely upon my representation of those still above ground.
The funny thing is, the objectors hardly appear in the book at all. The people who are suing me’s names appeared in a grand total of 3 chapters in a 14-chapter draft; nevertheless, they perceive themselves, apparently, to be central to the book. When one of them objected, I took her out of the book entirely (and told her so), but judging from her subsequent response, she still feels that her spirit pervades the book. I minimized the presence of the sisters who are suing as thoroughly as I could without actually misrepresenting occasions when they were present. I present it all as my point of view, and point that fact out repeatedly. Heck, I even tell my readers not to trust ANY single account of Philip K. Dick’s life.
And yet this was not enough.
The lesson to be learned here: everyone is the protagonist in her own life; not everyone has sufficient perspective to realize that her personal point of view is not the only possible one. Be careful to show your version of the truth as one man’s opinion, rather than Truth Everlasting.
3. Telling the truth will not necessarily protect you.
This is completely counterintuitive, I know, because truth is an absolute defense against slander and libel. However, as I pointed out yesterday, in human interactions, almost everything is subject to differing opinions.
Once a lawsuit gets to court, of course, both sides can provide evidence, and actually, I have so much documentary evidence to support my contentions that I would be rather pleased if this suit DID go to court. (Hypothetically, I have e-mails from one of the suing parties that confirm the truth of many of the book’s assertions that are now being challenged.) However, while many, if not most, memoirs are subject to howling protests from someone affiliated with the book, it is quite rare that any of them actually make it to court. The burden of proof is upon the complainer, you see, and while most of us are pretty sure that our own points of view are correct, few of us have thought over the years to rack up documentation to prove it.
Think about it: let’s say two people you know very well are having a conversation about a situation that affects all three of you. You are in another time zone when the conversation takes place. If you were not present, how do you know what was said?
The lesson to glean from this: obviously, the vast majority of most people’s lives are undocumented, so it is vitally important when you write about living people to document wherever you can. If you interview them, tape-record it (and it’s prudent to use two tape recorders, in case one of them malfunctions. If you have verbal conversations, write down what was said. If you want to be ultra-careful, ask follow-up questions in writing. E-mail is terrific for this, as long as you keep copies of positively EVERYTHING.
Fortunately for me and my publishers, I am a pack rat. I never throw an e-mail away; I even categorize them by sender. This is a situation where it really helps to be just a touch compulsive.
I shall keep posting new rules of thumb as they occur to me. Even though I walked into this experience with a decade’s worth of publishing background, I am still learning more every day. Rules change, and so do norms. I’ll keep you posted.
Yesterday, I was discussing Point-of-View Nazis (POVNs). It is important that you know about them, regardless of your own POV preferences, because they turn up in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a massive grain of salt.
You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.
As I mentioned yesterday, personally, I don’t believe that a single POV does most characters or situations justice, so I tend toward a broader narrative view, particularly for comedy. As a reader, I like to hear the thoughts of multiple players in a scene, to capture the various subtleties of interpretation. If I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative. Call me wacky.
These are merely my personal preferences, however; I am perfectly willing to listen to those who disagree with me. And there I differ from the average POVN, who wishes to impose his views upon everyone within the sound of his voice, or reach of his editorial pen.
To be fair, too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing. One of the more common first-novel problems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence. But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion. When in doubt, give each perspective its own paragraph.
It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.
If you are involved with a writing teacher, writing group compatriot, agent, or editor who is a POVN, you need to recognize his preference as early in your relationship as possible, in order to protect your own POV choices. Otherwise, you may end up radically edited, and some characterization may be lost. Take, for example, this paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE:
“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”
I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to figure out whose perspective is whose here, right? Yet, as a POVN would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:
Elizabeth’s POV: “Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…”
The POV of an external observer: “but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.”
And Darcy’s POV: :Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…”
A POVN in Aunt Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a perspective and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from Jane’s original intention, probably ending up reading rather like this:
“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.”
At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. Yet observe how easily a single stroke of a space bar in this example clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:
“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.
Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”
The moral here, my friends, is that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while. You may find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.
To paraphrase the late Mae West, if you copy other people’s style, you’re one of a crowd, but if you are an honest-to-goodness original, no one will ever mistake you for a copy.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini