We all know, because Mark Twain was kind enough to tell us, that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” It always comes as a shock to writers, however, that an anecdote can become someone else’s property before the person who lived it has had a chance to turn it into one heck of a story.
You would think that I would be used to it by now, wouldn’t you? Actually, blogging makes story-migration much more annoying. Since my usual excuse for not posting here as often as I would like — which is to say: as often as I did in the bad old days, when I occasionally posted as often as twice a day, as self-editing and marketing advice struck me; hey, there’s a reason that this site contains thousands of pages of posts — is not particularly exciting, I sometimes find myself longing for more thrilling justifications. It’s not that I actively yearn to be kidnapped by pirates, or drafted by the State Department to write a constitution for an emerging nation, or see my studio overrun by blue wildebeests intent upon retarding the forward course of American literature, of course; as a memoirist, I simply like to work with better material than hey, an editing client’s publishing house just asked for a last-minute revision.
And yet in the last week and a half, when life has kindly provided me with the stuff of gripping narrative nonfiction, I’ve been too bushed to take full literary advantage of it. When my chiropractor asked incredulously, “How precisely did you dislocate a rib while lying flat on your back by yourself?” the answer made him choke with laughter. He’s been dining out on the story for a week, and I still don’t have the requisite energy to do it justice in print.
As Uncle Mark also had the foresight to inform us, “the trouble ain’t that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain’t distributed right.”
Speaking of misplaced anecdotes, my friend Belinda has led a fascinating life, stuffed to the gills with the raw material of memoir. She’s climbed mountains (yes, because they were there, now that you mention it), run with the bulls in Pamplona disguised as a man (because they usually aren’t there), outrun riots in Southeast Asia (because the timing of her arrival was bad), observed meteor showers from the top of a tall tree in Canada (because the timing of her arrival was good), embraced lion cubs (because she knew the right keeper to be welcome), backed away from an angry grizzly (because she knew how to tell when she wasn’t welcome), cooked with M.F.K. Fisher (because she knew a thing or two about fresh truffles) and mistakenly ordered a mushroom omelette in the late 1960s in Thailand that made her hallucinate that the restaurant owner’s goat had grown to the size of Godzilla (okay, I haven’t the faintest idea what she was thinking here).
I’ve been trying for years to cajole her into writing a travel memoir, but every time we sit down to talk about it, I can’t help but notice that her anecdotes occasionally suffer from a rather serious narrative problem: it’s not always clear at first what they are about. Or even about whom.
It’s not that Belinda’s memories have become confused over the last ninety-one years. Far from it: her tales of going door to door on election days during the Great Depression, cajoling the lonely and the shut-in to visit local polling places to vote for her candidate of choice with vague promises of hitting the town afterward, are so vividly rendered that they border on the illustrated. (Hey, she was a big fan of F.D.R., even at 15.) Nor does she sketch the background or secondary characters too lightly, a standard autobiographical pitfall: all too often, memoirs fail to provide either enough of a sense of place for the reader to picture where the narrator is, or enough character development for anyone but the narrator.
As Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, there are an awful lot of memoirs out there apparently by authors wandering around uninhabited planets with no scenery to speak of. Or so she must surmise, from how little those memoirists seem to comment on anything or anyone around them.
That’s not necessarily a drawback in spoken storytelling, of course; many a good cocktail party yarn contains no character development or sense of place at all, but it’s often death to a memoir submission. Why? Pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers of this blog: what works in a verbal anecdote will not necessarily fly in a written memoir. Telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.
Nor does Belinda over-rely upon pronouns, another common bugbear of anecdotalists. We’ve all found ourselves in the clutches of a storyteller who doesn’t specify, right? In a story with a lot of hes running around — say, on a street in Pamplona — it’s helpful if the hearer knows which one is which: They chased him down the street as he ran alongside, screaming, and they cheered from the windows above is not, let’s face it, particularly clear narration.
Yet as any Millicent screening memoir submissions on a regular basis can attest, that particular species of verbal confusion turns up on the memoir page all the time. Chant it along with me now, veteran readers: what doesn’t work in a verbal anecdote often will not work in a memoir, either. And why? Shout it out: because telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.
Sensing a pattern here, or do I need to trot out another Mark Twain quote? Okay, if you insist: ““It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”
So you would think that Belinda would have it made as a memoirist, wouldn’t you? Even better, perhaps because her storytelling style has been developed over decades of chatting with relative strangers, often in languages with which she was not altogether familiar, she steers clear of the ubiquitous tendency to assume that anyone who might be interested in her stories would necessarily side with her in a tale of conflict. Her villains are well drawn enough that her hearers do not need to be told whom to hate, and her heroes’ exploits speak for themselves.
Why might that be unusual in a memoir submission, you ask? Because, alas for literary achievement, most would-be memoirists are used to telling their life stories to their kith, kin, and folks they might happen to meet at a party — in other words, to folk predisposed to think well of them. (Oh, you’re hostile to fellow partygoers who tell anecdotes well?) As listeners, most of us lean on the kind side: if a storyteller entertains us, we will root for him as we listen.
Quoth Twain: “in all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane.”
That’s why, I’m told, world-famous raconteur John Steinbeck used to change which character he was each time he told an anecdote: no matter who he said he was, that person was the hero of the current version. You might want to try it as a narrative exercise: not only is it good practice in perspective-shifting, but a canny way to suss out what story elements create more or less sympathy for a protagonist.
It also, rumor has it, allowed Uncle John to glean valuable feedback about which character he should pretend to be when he next told the story in front of a pretty woman. I’m sure ol’ Mark said a thing or two about that, but I prefer Anita Owen’s 1894 poem as a retort: “O dreamy eyes/they tell sweet lies of Paradise;/and in those eyes the love-light lies/and lies — and lies– and lies!”
Credibility, you see, is largely in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. We’ve all been swayed by a persuasive speaker. An audience’s tendency to side with the narrator does not necessarily manifest on the printed page, though, where the memoirist is conveying her story to total strangers — and not face to face. Readers are significantly less likely to give a memoir’s narrator the benefit of the doubt than hearers are, possibly because it’s a whole heck of a lot harder to roll one’s eyes and mutter, “Yeah, right,” while one’s boss is telling a story in a bar after work than over a book in one’s lap.
That’s vital to recognize, if one wants to write memoir well. In fact, let’s go ahead and add it to the day’s list of aphorisms: on the page, readers expect a narrator to win their empathy, not assume it. Which, again, is another way in which telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.
I hate to depress you further, but truth compels me to say that Millicent is even less likely to jump on the narrator’s bandwagon. She is paid not to cut a memoir query or submission any slack.
Why bring that up in a series on querying — or, for that matter, within the context of the discussion of memoir voice and story structure I seem to have been sneaking into the last half-dozen posts? Because so few memoir queries’ book description paragraphs convey the impression that the querier is a particularly talented storyteller.
A shame, really, as plenty of extremely talented storytellers’ queries get rejected on this basis. There’s a reason for that: the overwhelming majority of memoirists tell their tales on the page — both query and manuscript — as though the reader already knows them personally, and thus is predisposed to like them and their stories. On the manuscript page, that’s just not true. So from Millicent’s perspective, memoir openings that neither grab the reader from line 1 nor convince the reader to start liking the narrator and his writing style enough to root for him by the bottom of page 1 to want to follow him through three or four hundred pages are ample reason to reject most of the submissions she sees.
Unfortunately, that’s not how memoirists tend to think of their stories. You know the tune by now: because telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.
Because Belinda’s storytelling style steers clear of all of these common memoir shortcomings, I think her life story would translate well to the page. My one qualm about what she might import from conversation: her anecdotes frequently suffer from the assumption that the hearer will have begun following the story at some point prior to when the words began coming out of her mouth. Presumably via some sort of telepathy.
It’s not that her stories are unclear; she merely does not always begin them at the beginning. Quite frequently, she will start somewhere in the middle, as the first part of the tale had already to been going strong in her own mind. Or even somewhere near the end: “And so I said to Henry Miller,” she suddenly said the other day, “if he wanted to write about what had just happened, he would have to arm-wrestle me for it.”
Admittedly, that’s a pretty great teaser, but aren’t you just the least bit curious to what this intriguing conclusion refers? Millicent would be, but being forced to judge a memoir only by what’s on the page in front of her, she would have no way of finding out. Memoirists are all too prone to forget, unfortunately, that the reader cannot tug upon the author’s sleeve and pipe, “Hey, Ambrose, what were you talking about here?”
“Get your facts first,” Uncle Mark tells us, “then you can distort them as you please.”
As I was actually in the room with Belinda, I enjoyed a luxury Millicent does not: the ability to ask follow-up questions. If only my rib permitted my conveying the rest of the anecdote — or if I shared my chiropractor’s willingness to abscond with other people’s stories — you’d be rolling in the proverbial aisles.
But the inherent humor of the story simply wouldn’t matter if Belinda made the same mistake in telling it on the page as she did out loud — which Millicent sees all the time, incidentally. Steam-of-consciousness reasoning abounds in memoir submissions, synopses, and even, believe it or not, queries. Yet no matter how amusing, instructive, or entertaining a story might be in the teller’s mind, if its facts are not clear on the page, it’s not good memoir storytelling.
Or at any rate, not a narrative style that’s ready for publication. Clarity is, after all, the minimum requirement for professional prose, not an optional extra.
Do my finely-tuned antennae pick up some ambient disgruntlement? “I get why Millie might regard hard-to-follow storytelling as a red flag in a submission,” memoirists everywhere concede, “but I don’t get how she could reasonably use it as a criterion in judging a query. As you have pointed out several times in the course of this series, the book description paragraph in a query should not tell the entire story of the book, merely introduce Millicent to its premise. So as long as my memoir query presents me as an interesting person in an interesting situation…”
Pardon my interrupting, disgruntled disembodied voices, but an astoundingly high percentage of memoirists who are in fact interesting people faced with interesting conflicts do not present themselves that way in their queries. All too often, talented autobiographers talk about their stories, rather than using their perhaps formidable storytelling skills to spin their legitimately fascinating yarns. The result, alas, tends to read something like this:
Pardon Millicent’s asking, but what the heck is this book about? It sounds exciting, whatever it is, but why not give some general indication of the story’s central conflict, where it takes place, and who the narrator is? Hey, while you’re at it, Montecristo, why make a secret of the book’s title? And why oh why is it printed on such funky-sized paper?
While we’re asking rhetorical questions, forgive my bringing it up, but is this story fiction or nonfiction?
Oh, you laugh, but you would not believe how often memoir- and fiction-representing agents alike receive queries that leave them guessing on that last point. They even more frequently see queries that make them guess who the narrator is, what her story is about, and/or why memoir readers would be interested in learning about it.
None of these things are foregone conclusions for a memoir — but that’s not what a writer of the real tends to think about when sitting down to write, is it? Implicitly, almost all of us (yes, I started here, too) conceive of our memoir narratives with an eye to how those who already know us — and, by extension, at least the bare bones of our stories — will react to our telling the truth about it.
Often, there’s a good reason for that: if Aunt Madge ordered you at age 8 not to tell anyone about the exploding peach preserve debacle, it’s safe to assume that she might become slightly irritated when you reveal it to an admiring public when you are 47. It’s not safe to assume, however, that Millicent, her boss, or the editor to whom your future agent will be shopping your memoir proposal will be just fine with your being vague about what happened because you don’t want to offend good ol’ Madge.
Nor, alas, should a savvy querier presume that the fact a story really happened will render it inherently interesting to total strangers. If you want to provoke eye-rolling and moaning in a Millicent that works at a nonfiction agency, by all means, include one of the following phrases in your memoir query: true story, really happened, real-life tale, my own story.
I hate to be the one to break it to you (but better you hear it from me than not know why your query got rejected, right?), but in a memoir query, all of these phrases are redundant. Of course, a memoir is a true story, based upon something that really happened to the author: that’s the definition of memoir, is it not?
Trust the Millicent opening your query to be aware of that. But — I feel an aphorism coming on — don’t presume that the fact you lived your own life story will be enough to interest agents and editors in your book.
At least not all by itself. As anyone who works with memoirs for a living could tell you, just because something really happened does not necessarily mean it will make a good book. As the agents who represent memoir like to say, it all depends upon the writing.
I sense the agent-seeking memoirists out there shifting uncomfortably in their desk chairs. “But Anne!” you protest, and with what excellent justification! “I would love to toss my manuscript, or even just the sample chapter from my book proposal, at Millicent, so she could judge my book by, well, my book. But the agent of my dreams’ submission guidelines specify that I should query without any supporting materials. That means, horrifyingly, that I have only that 1-page query letter to convince her that I’ve got a great story on my hands and that I can write it well. Help!”
I appreciate your panic, chair-shifters. Happily for us all, it is indeed possible for a good storyteller to convey enough of a memoir’s story arc in a paragraph (or, at most, two) to grab our Millicent. The trick lies in conveying the premise vividly enough to make it apparent what is happening, who the memoirist is in the story, and what is at stake in the conflict.
Does the clang of a thousand jaws hitting a thousand desktops mean that some of you wish you’d known that was the goal before you first wrote a query for your memoir? If so, you’re not alone; as Twain tells us, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”
Fortunately, today’s brave reader-exemplar did see the opportunity to present Millicent with one heck of a premise — and make it clear why readers will find it both original and compelling. And I, for one, could not be more tickled to see her pull off this difficult challenge, as I (and regular readers of this blog) already know from past exposure to this writer’s work that the memoirist in question can write.
So join me please, in appreciating long-time Author! Author! community member and generous volunteer Betsy Ross’ (not her real name, of course, nor her real contact info) missive to Millicent. As always, if you find you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.
Doesn’t leave much doubt as to what the book is about, does it? That descriptive paragraph makes it abundantly clear what happened, who the author was in the story, and what was at stake for her. Even more unusual, she has, unlike most memoirists, taken the time to figure out what her platform for telling this story is over and above having lived it! Beautifully done, Betsy!
But are that genuine grabber of a description and the platform as presented enough to wow Millicent? Possibly — yet I think we can improve the odds a bit. First, let’s make a few cosmetic changes, to polish away a few eye-distracters. Compare the touched-up version with the original: can you spot the subtle differences?
Comes across as a trifle more professional already, does it not? Yet the changes I made were quite minor: I moved Betsy’s contact information into the header (it had been on the first line of text), added a necessary comma in paragraph 2, line 1, made paragraph 2, line 4 conform with a grammatical expectation, and added a hyphen to e-mail in paragraph 4, line 2. All tiny stuff, but the result is closer to what Millicent will expect.
For the same reason, I changed trial to case in paragraph 2, line 5. I haven’t read the memoir, so I don’t know if the trial lasted 17 years, but as a matter of storytelling, the original word choice raised that question.
Is it me, though, or is the transition between the descriptive paragraph and the platform paragraph a bit more abrupt than it needs to be? And are those thoughtfully-constructed credentials presented in the most effective manner?
Again, I think we can make some improvements. Although I’m flattered that Betsy would present her abundantly justified win in an Author! Author! competition as her primary credential, for this story, it’s not.
How do I know that? Because she has buried a humdinger of a credential later in that paragraph. She’s also cast unnecessary doubt upon her delightfully apt professional credential by saying that she is trained to do her job. Isn’t that assumed? And isn’t the assertion that she can be reached via her listed contact information self-evident?
Doesn’t, in short, something about the wording and presentation of these perfectly fine credentials imply that Betsy is not as sure of her platform as she should be?
Look how much more persuasive this query can be if we alter the running order of the platform paragraph and phrase her credentials a bit more assertively. In order to heighten Millicent’s sense of Betsy’s professionalism, I’ve also changed the rather confusing second magazine name to the way it would turn up in a Google search and removed that logically unnecessary sentence in the last paragraph. I also seem to have tightened the wording in the descriptive paragraph a little; I’ve never been able to resist adding the Oxford comma.
Her platform seems better-grounded this way, doesn’t it? Yet it’s all the same facts; they are merely set forth in a manner that aligns more closely with how Millicent is accustomed to seeing such good credentials show up in a query. They’re also, to be blunt about it, harder for a skimming eye to miss.
If I were most querying teachers, I would leave it at that: this query is likely to fly with many Millicents now. Yet to an experienced Millicent or her boss, Betsy’s query still might raise eyebrows in two respects. Any guesses why?
No? Would it help if I quoted Twain again? “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”
Okay, so that clue was a trifle opaque. I’m going to go ahead and remove the first of the red flags. Compare this version with the last, and we’ll meet again on the other side to discuss why Millicent will like it better.
Did you catch it? This is one of those secret-handshake things, I’m afraid: to a professional reader, statements like my book will not only answer the initial question, but will also detail… would seem a trifle heavy-handed in a book description. They distance the reader from the tale, decreasing its impact. It’s also, let’s face it, perfectly obvious in a query that the description is talking about what’s in the book.
Instead, why not just tell the story directly? It provides a much better opportunity for Betsy to show off what a talented storyteller she is — in a query that, frankly, has enough space left on the page to add a few more specifics. I just mention.
There’s another red flag here, though, that might actually discourage some Millicents from reading as far as that compelling descriptive paragraph. Want a hint? We turn again to Twain: ““All generalizations are false, including this one.”
Giving up so soon? I can’t say as I blame you; this one is purely a matter of how the publishing industry thinks of books. Take a gander at a more Millicent-friendly target audience statement.
Goosebump-inducing this time around, isn’t it? That’s true for a couple of reasons. First, the appeal of the book is shown this time around, rather than told: by immediately leaping into the ultra-personal perspective appropriate for a memoir, that opening paragraph makes the stakes absolutely clear — and startling.
Let’s face it, it would be hard to be that surprising in the distant, analytical voice of the original target audience description. Betsy’s probably right about to whom this book is likely to appeal, but leaping straight to the conflict is just better storytelling. Especially since it allows both the first and second paragraphs to shout at Millicent: “This is a story you’re not going to hear anywhere else!”
Better than just telling the old girl that Betsy’s uniquely qualified to share this story, isn’t it? Not to mention more emotionally powerful.
For Millicent, though, there’s another reason this last version would be more convincing: true crime and memoir are quite different book categories, appealing to overlapping yet not overall very similar readerships. Again, Betsy is probably correct that her book would draw upon both of those audiences, but by stating it so baldly — and so early in the query — she’s inviting Millicent to leap to the conclusion that this is a writer that doesn’t understand how book categories work. At minimum, that’s going to water down the impact of Betsy’s MBA, from a publishing perspective.
As, you guessed it, Mark Twain observed, “Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one’s head.” That’s also true of memoir. What makes a story unique, in the proper sense of being one of a kind, is the memoirist’s perspective.
In Betsy’s case, that perspective is genuinely jaw-dropping. So why shouldn’t she make Millicent’s jaw drop as soon as she possibly can? And why shouldn’t she bring all of her storytelling talents to the task, drawing her future agent right away into that 13-year-old’s fragmented world?
Life is crammed to the gills with the unexpected, my friends: ribs don’t just leap out of their natural habitats by themselves. But as the agents like to say, it all depends on the writing. The miracle of talent, not just the content of the story, provides the difference between a second-hand anecdote about it and a memoir so vivid that the reader feels the she is the one whose rib has been displaced.
I have a feeling that readers are going to be reaping the benefits of that particular miracle in Betsy’s case. Many thanks to her for volunteering this quite strong query, so we could experiment with making its strengths shine still brighter. Best of luck finding the right agent for this startling story, Ms. Ross, and everybody, keep up the good work!