Last I posted about my book-in-progress, I had sent the latest draft to four readers to get their reactions: two female published memoir authors and university professors, and two male film and television writers/directors, one of whom is also my mentor. All four are accomplished writers and avid readers themselves. Their feedback, both encouraging and constructive, confirmed that I am definitely on the right track. I have a compelling story and engaging writing style. I also still have a lot of work to do. I’m sharing some of their constructive notes here because I think other writers will relate. Even if you’re not a writer, it might be interesting to see what we writers have to figure out.
1. Too much context vs. not enough context
While all the characters come across clearly, there is apparently too much background information on some, and not enough on others. Two readers didn’t feel as moved by the main characters as they wanted to be. There were sections where the narration was “too distant,” while in other places it was so present they felt right there in the moment. (This is one of the reasons why having people read the work is so important, to identify what feels like ‘too much’ or ‘not enough,’ what is resonating and what isn’t.)
2. Confusion regarding timeline of events
I tell the story using a variety of sources: first person narration, journal entries, letters, emails, etc., and jump between now and then at the chapter breaks, like an A-B-A-B-A-B structure. There are a few dates (but no years), and almost everything is in the present tense. Three of the readers found this confusing and suggested I find a way to delineate now and then more clearly, either by using “tense shifts to create meaning and structure,” or simply putting everything in the past tense. I haven’t decided yet, but clearly I have to do something. The last thing I want is for readers to be flipping back a few pages to figure out what’s going on, or worse, putting the book down because it’s too complicated.
3. The beginning isn’t a big enough “hook”
Each reader had a different opinion on where the story should start, but they all agreed that the beginning didn’t grab them enough. One suggested I read the first chapter of other popular memoirs: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, Searching for Mercy Street by Linda Gray Sexton, The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. For fun, I also read the first chapter of Love Story, the 1970 romance novel by Erich Segal. Reading these masterful first chapters gave me a good sense of what is meant by “hook.” It’s a combination of where and how the story starts, riding that fine balance between giving the reader enough information to let her know what the story is about, and withholding enough information to leave her not only wanting more, but also wondering, “How in the world will this story end?”
4. The end doesn’t feel like the end
Everyone had this note too. One reader said, “It feels like it ends about ten miles away from where it should.” In other words, close, but not quite there. Another reader wondered if “there’s a process you’re still involved in… maybe love and grieving are still standing in your way.” This is probably true, and I imagine not uncommon for anyone writing a “grief memoir.” The challenge is how to end an otherwise sad (albeit compelling) story on an uplifting and/or meaningful note without sounding melodramatic, corny or unrealistic.
“It was the most challenging experience of my life… but now I’m fine! Line up the shots, boys, I’m back on the market!” OR “It was the most challenging experience of my life… but it taught me how to love, how to be me, how to write, how to cry, the meaning of life… yadda yadda yadda.” OR “It was the most challenging experience of my life… but ever since I found religion, started meditating, doing yoga, knitting, volunteering with animals and homeless people, I realize everything happens for a reason and makes sense now.” NOT.
5. Too many scenes, too much summation, too many “I-feels”
Ironic that I should be struggling with scene construction and exposition when my background is screenwriting. Alas, this is my own private riddle, one which only I can solve.
6. Not sure how to make it compelling to a wider audience
This note has nothing to do with what happens in the story, and everything to do with how the story is told. As one reader said, “Basically you are telling a love story and it is an old one. Most stories are old ones. What matters about your version has to lie in the quality of the scenes.” “And the relatability to the reader,” added another.
So, there you have it. It’s back to the drawing board… this time with the help of a writer friend who has agreed to serve as a sounding board/quasi editor. The first step is putting everything in chronological order. The second step is deciding what stays and what goes. Then there’s about 100 more steps. But I’ve already traveled thousands of miles since the first draft, so what’s a few hundred more steps? Or miles, for that matter.
I keep thinking of it in musical terms. I have all the right notes, but they don’t quite add up to a symphony yet. They need to be re-ordered. Some of the tempos, harmonies and accents have to be adjusted. More importantly, the melody of the entire piece has to be clearer. The only way to accomplish that is for me to know what it sounds like, so clearly that I can hum it to myself. The tune is literally on the tip of my tongue.