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!