Before I launch into today’s installment, I am delighted to have some good news to report about a member of the Author! Author! community. Remember last month, when I announced that long-time reader Janet Oakley was a finalist in the Surrey Writer’s Conference Literary Contest, for her essay, DRYWALL (from a larger work entitled TIME OF GRIEF)? Well, she WON! Everyone, please join me in a great big round of applause!
As I mentioned before, Janet is no stranger to contest recognition: her novels THE TREE SOLDIER and THE JOSSING AFFAIR were both past PNWA contest finalists. Primarily a writer of historical fiction, she has published articles and essays on a broad array of subjects, in everything from Rugby Magazine to Historylink.
Congratulations, Janet, and may this be a stepping-stone to many more victories for you! And everybody, please keep sending in your success stories – I love to be able to report good news about my readers.
Okay, back to the topic at hand. Throughout this series, I have been using an anecdote about a conference to show the dangers of incorporating real-life stories into your fiction submissions. Quite apart from the fact that such stories can sometimes feel very peripheral to the plot (come on, most of us have shoehorned a scene we liked into a book at least once), they often, perversely, lack the ring of truth when reproduced in a fictional context.
In this series, I have been trying to show you how and why. Let me try telling the anecdote again.
I was at a small conference in Montana, sitting by a plate glass window the size of a woolly mammoth, gazing out over a well-trimmed golf course toward the nearby blue mountains of Glacier National Park. I had given a class on manuscript submission dos and don’ts – necessary, but hardly thrilling – which, I am grateful to say, attracted many conference attendees to share their book ideas with me, looking for advice on how to impress agents with them.
However, even the most well-meaning of helpers needs a break from time to time, so I was sitting with one of the other presenters, enjoying a cup of the local stand-a-spoon-up-in-it coffee, the old West kind that keeps even latte-hardened Seattleites like me up for days on end. Suddenly, a dear little old lady plopped herself down in the middle of our conversation, introduced herself hurriedly as Ellen, and started telling us both about her book.
At length. As in the age of the woolly mammoth might have come and gone in the course of the telling.
I wasn’t altogether surprised. Ellen was, after all, the person who had brought the screenwriting class to a screeching halt the day before: when asked to give her three-line pitch, she spoke for the following twelve minutes nonstop. Four of those twelve minutes were unrelated anecdotes about her early life, begun in response to the screenwriting teacher’s polite but increasingly strained attempts to get her to narrow down her story to, well, three lines. I had to give her points for personal style.
By the end of the fortieth minute of monologue over coffee, however, her charm had begun to fade a little for me, I must admit. My initial conversational companion needed to catch a shuttle to the airport soon, so we had both begun to drop miniscule, subtle hints to Ellen that it might be time for us to stop listening and move on to pastures greener, or at any rate more airborne. Yet miraculously, each polite attempt to excuse a move toward the doorway seemed to remind Ellen of yet another anecdote marginally related to her book.
Not that it wasn’t entertaining stuff. Most of her stories concerned her grandmother’s ongoing plots with her father to humiliate her mother, who evidently was not the brightest crayon in the box, if you get my drift. Grandma was cultured, refined, the kind of lady who brushed off bores by rising imperiously and declaring, “If you will excuse me, I have some correspondence to which I simply must attend immediately.” Unfortunately, Grandma did not suffer fools gladly: her pet name for Mama was evidently “you ninny.” In fact, I gathered from the collected anecdotes, the only thing that drab little Mama had ever done in her life to please Grandma had been to marry Papa, thus providing an apparently endless stream of opportunities for the old girl and Papa to trick Mama into embarrassing situations.
Hilarity, naturally, ensued.
Amused as I was, I have to say, the more Ellen talked, the more I disliked Grandma qua character; I was starting to side with poor abused Mama, catering to that harpy for fifty years, married to that cad, AND doing all of the cooking and cleaning. Yet in each and every (and I do mean EVERY) story, Ellen presented Grandma as an admirable person, a gem forced to live in a henhouse, wreaking her well-justified revenge upon the people who supported her for their stupidity. (Oh, yes: Grandma used to target the townsfolk, too. I’ll spare you what he did to the Lutheran pastor; suffice it to say that he moved on to another parish toute suite.)
To compound the problem, Ellen’s anecdotal style was a bit diffuse, so as listeners, we were forced to be active, clarifying minor details such as, “What year was this?” “Why was it necessary to euthanize the dog?” and “What exactly did the King of Sweden have to do with this situation?” But mostly, being nice, well brought-up women, we said, “Oh, how hard that must have been for you,” and “My, how fascinating,” and glanced furtively at our watches.
As shuttle time ticked closer, our hints grew somewhat broader. We asked for the check; we paid the bill; we gathered our things, all the while murmuring whenever Ellen drew breath, “Mmm,” or, “How interesting,” or, “Look at the time — I’m going to miss my plane!” as the opportunity warranted. By the time Ellen launched into what I devoutly hoped was going to be her last anecdote, my friend and I were both standing, clutching the backs of our chairs, saying how nice it had been to meet her.
Ellen settled back into her seat, clearly all ready for hours of storytelling. Her next story concerned Grandma, of course. Seems she and Papa had worked out a system to prevent Mama from talking about herself (apparently, ever), a nefarious scheme for total domination so effective that Lex Luthor would have ground his teeth with envy. Whenever Mama began speaking on topics that did not interest the other two (all the examples Ellen gave were occasions when Mama wanted to express a personal opinion, I noticed), Grandma would interrupt her to ask Papa to fetch her something from the other room. Papa would beat a hasty retreat, with the understanding that by the time he returned, Grandma would have changed the subject to something of interest to civilized people, like the weather or Canasta.
One day (Ellen told us), Mama finally caught on. “You know,” she said, “I sometimes think that he does that just to get away from me.”
Ellen was laughing so hard that she could barely tell us Grandma’s characteristic reply: “I wondered how long it would take you to figure that out, you ninny.”
Ellen seemed quite astonished that we did not join in her laugh. This story must have been knocking ‘em dead at Lutheran potlucks for decades. “I have to say,” I observed, backing toward the door, “in your mother’s place, I would have poisoned the old woman’s pancakes the next day.”
“Just LOOK at the time,” my companion said. “I have to catch my plane.”
These seem to have been the first two sentences either of us had breathed that made an impact on Ellen. She fixed me with a fiery eye, the kind that Grandma had probably leveled at the ninny on an hourly basis. “Not everyone appreciates comedy,” she said, and, turning very pointedly to my companion, began another anecdote.
Now that story was significantly funnier in the pages-long version than it had been in the rather cursory earlier versions I told you, wasn’t it? It’s not the only way to tell it, of course, but here, I set the scene, gave you enough detail about Ellen and myself so you could follow our brief relationship, included relevant background detail, and made the narrative voice comment on what could have been a rather dull account. See the difference?
My main point this time around, though, is not about how I told the story of something that had happened to me, but how Ellen did. Ellen (naturally, not her real name) made the single most common mistake of the writer of real-life stories: she assumed that not only was every nuance of her family’s life inherently and instantaneously fascinating to people who had never met them (always a dangerous supposition, even in memoir), but also that HER point of view on who was the heroine of the stories she told was the only possible one. Yet actually, the pure facts of the tales said to my companion and me that poor ninny Mama was a more sympathetic heroine.
In other words, her dramatic emphasis boomeranged, not only negating the effect she wished her stories to have upon hearers, but causing us to switch our sympathies to the character she had cast as the villain. Ultimately, on in a manuscript, this would have turned us against the narrator for being so biased against our emotional favorite.
I can’t even begin to tell you how often I’ve seen this happen on paper. Take it as a rule of thumb: no matter how hard people at cocktail parties laugh at anecdotes, thumbnail sketches with a strong slant in favor of a single character almost never work when translated directly to the page. These stories need more telling, more fleshing out, and the author needs to pay attention to their impact upon the reader. And above all, the hero of the piece needs sufficient character development that the reader can empathize with his response to the villain.
In glaring at me, Ellen exhibited the classic real-story writer’s “But it really happened that way!” attitude. The problem was not in how the story was told, this attitude implies, but in the listener’s or reader’s RESPONSE to it. If a joke falls flat, it must be because the listener is a ninny; if the scene doesn’t work, it must be because the agent isn’t really interested in good writing.
And this attitude, unfortunately, often means that at revision time, the real-life scenes remain untouched, while the fictional scenes are revised into unrecognizability. As an editor, I can tell you: the opposite is usually what is warranted. Take a long, hard look at those real-life scenes first.
There endeth the parable. Import reality into your fiction with care, boys and girls, and as always, keep up the good work!