Writing the real, part III, in which I both stress the importance of dramatic emphasis and illustrate what you might not want to do at a conference if you want to win friends and influence people

Pardon my Dickensian title today: I’m returning to the topic of including real-life incidents in your work, and I realized that my point here is AT LEAST twofold. Truth in advertising, don’t you know. Today, I am going to continue my conference story AND my blather about the importance of maintaining dramatic emphasis in order to make a real-life incident work on paper. Which brings me at long last to the conference anecdote I’ve been threatening to tell you for the last few days.

At a recent conference that shall remain nameless, a novelist of an apparently heavily autobiographical novel was telling me about her book. At some length. As in geological time. Admittedly, I wasn’t terribly surprised by this: this was, after all, the dear soul who had filled me with glee during the screenwriting class; when called upon to give her three-line pitch, she talked for twelve minutes nonstop. I had to give her points for personal style.

So I dispatched the other attendees waiting to ask me questions with promises to listen to them at length later and let the lady hold forth. She was an entertaining storyteller, and has evidently had quite the exciting life. Her storytelling style was a tad episodic, however, and somehow in telling, she veered off from her first novel into her second, in order to tell me a series of anecdotes about her maternal grandmother.

As one does.

Her grandmother, I am sorry to say, was one of those souls whom one had to know in order to love. The best way of pleasing her seemed to be not to end up in her gun sites. In these stories, the author was always presenting her as the heroine, yet somehow, in every instance, she seemed to be acting awfully villainish…

Okay, pop quiz: what am I doing wrong in telling this story? (You thought you were going to be able to sit back and enjoy the story, but no: I have a didactic purpose here.) A little hint: what am I doing that the vast majority of true story-tellers do when they include anecdotes?

Well, for starters, I’m telling you about this situation, instead of showing it — which, admittedly, is probably the way I would tell the anecdote verbally. Almost every writer falls into this trap when she first starts writing about the real: what works in a water cooler conversation will work on paper, right?

Not necessarily, and actually, not very often. Flesh out the details.

I am also assuming, within the context of this telling, that not only are you, my readers, going to have enough experience teaching at writers’ conferences that you will be able to provide context (because THAT’S such a common background to have…) without my telling you about it, but also that you will understand that as the teller, I am actually the protagonist here, rather than the old lady. My reaction to her is, in fact, the star of the story.

Like telling-not-showing, these are vintage traps of the real-life anecdote: like the first, it leads to under-writing the scene; I’m not presenting the situation vividly enough for you to get a real sense of what was going on. The last two are assumption problems, every bit as much as including a stereotype in your work. What the writer pitches, the reader does not always catch.

To give you some idea why agents and editors tend to break out in hives when confronted with this kind of anecdotal telling, let’s do a little role-playing, shall we? You play the agent, and I’ll play the author of the piece above. Let’s say you confronted me with the underwriting, and I immediately cried, “But it happened this way in real life!” Technically, I would be justified, you know; this did in fact occur.

What would you say in response? A bit tricky, isn’t it, without launching into a governessy diatribe that either implies that the writer’s craft is poor or that she shouldn’t be relying upon her own experience at all?

And that, my friends, is why you will seldom hear agents and editors talk about this problem at conferences. It makes them sound hostile. This reluctance to talk about the problem does not, however, prevent them from routinely rejecting manuscripts that have it.

I know; it’s dreadfully unfair to judge people by standards that they don’t know exist. That’s why I’m broaching the subject here. Because here is an instance where including a real-life anecdote may well be the best, or even the only, way to help writers walk a mile in an agency screener’s proverbial moccasins.

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the more subtle problems such anecdotes often have. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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