Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #5: Writing in the Face of Fragile Family Relationships

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column #5: Writing in the Face of Fragile Family Relationships

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

My memoir is about growing up in a family where the default position in any dispute was to totally cut that relative from our lives. It resulted in me growing up in a bubble with no extended family. As a child this seemed quite normal, but as I grew up, I began to realise how dysfunctional and destructive this behaviour was. 

After the death of my parents, I took a leap of faith and reconnected with a number of relatives I had never met. This shed light on an otherwise dark past and brought much happiness to my life.

It has also led to a conflict. I believe my experiences are not unique and hope telling my story will help others feel less alone. I want to write the truth, but I don’t want to hurt my fragile extended family. How do I write my memoir without hurting the people I love?

Sincerely,

Fragile Family

 …..

Dear Fragile Family,

Your letter contains two questions: Should I write this memoir, and should I publish it? 

The answer to your first question is a resounding yes. As Joan Didion says, we write to understand ourselves. If this family pattern is still bothering you, it’s worth understanding. The writing process might shed additional light on your family situation and increase your compassion for them. Over time, the story you’ve always told might evolve. There’s only one way to find out: write it down. 

Seven Steps for Managing Feedback on Your Work in Progress

Seven Steps for Managing Feedback on Your Work in Progress

Summer is a great time to receive feedback on your manuscripts. At least what I tell myself and my students. Between June 4 – June 11, 2019, I attended The Writer’s Hotel Conference in New York, a weeklong intensive that included daily workshops, public readings, and agent pitch sessions. This year, I worked with Meghan Daum and an incredible cohort of writers. Together, we examined our narrative arcs, scenes, and the placement of reflections while simultaneously wrestling with the age-old memoir question: Should I show more (scene), or tell more (narration)? Or, to reference Philip Lopate’s craft book To Show and to Tell, how can I effectively do both?  

 While I pounded the lawless streets of Midtown Manhattan, my Memoir in a Year students finished the first drafts of their books (insert whoops of joy) and traded manuscripts with their beta readers. Throughout the summer my students and I will wade through the marked manuscript pages readers have given to us.

Receiving feedback can feel exhilarating. But once we prepare for revision, most writers wrestle with the same question: where do I begin?

After years of attending writing workshops, I have created this system for managing the unwieldy stacks of workshop manuscripts alongside the internal struggles feedback sometimes elicits. I’d like to share it with you.

 

Step One: Check Your Ego at the Door

Let’s be honest. Part of us secretly hopes to find that one reader who will tell us we’re brilliant and our manuscripts are absolutely perfect. Yet, the reason we submit our writing to readers, workshops, or editors is that another part of us knows more work needs to be done. The tension between what the ego wants (undying admiration) and what the artist inside you knows, can lead to irritations. There’s only one remedy for this situation. Send your ego packing so you can objectively examine what you’ve been told.

 

Step Two: Read Through Everything

Read through all feedback in one sitting, preferably on a day when you’re well rested and unstressed. This will help you maintain your objectivity as you wade through the morass of comments in front of you. When you’re done, journal about the experience. Are there points of consensus, split decisions, or suggestions that sound like a complete overhaul of your work? What rings true? Does anything ruffle your feathers? Are there items that don’t make sense or points of misunderstanding? If there are, can you ask for clarification?

 

Step Three: Transcribe Feedback into One Document

Soon after your initial review, print a clean copy of your manuscript. Transcribe all feedback that rings true onto the clean copy. Include all questions, comments, and line edits. On a separate sheet of paper, or in an MS Word document, list everything else. Be sure to record points of consensus and those dreaded split decisions that require you to trust your gut. Make a separate list of items you need to ponder, including items that seem unhelpful or unwelcome.  When appropriate, ask for clarification on those last few items. It’s possible that the reader has a great point that was poorly communicated.

 

Step Four: After a Waiting Period, Review Your Notes

All feedback should be seen as a gift. Readers took valuable time from their lives to read and understand your work. And yet, there are times when even the most well-meaning reader doesn’t get your project. This is especially true when readers are given snippets from a larger work.

One week after your initial reading, open your MS Word document and articulate your project’s purpose, trajectory, and goals. Then reread your notes. If a piece of feedback takes you on a major tangent that doesn’t ring true, ignore it. At least for now.

 

Step Five: Don’t Let Your Ego Drive the Bus

Don’t let the above suggestion serve as an excuse to dismiss something important. I know. Some feedback feels like a cheese grater against our skin. I’m not talking about unhelpful comments like “I hate your character,” “Your book is too sad,” or “Your story is pointless.” I mean well-intended feedback we just don’t want to hear. Things like, “I think there’s a deeper level to this story than you’ve explored,” “My attention is wandering here,” “I’m confused about what’s happening in this section,” or “I’m not connecting to your main character.” These comments are likely to create the most ire when we’re sick of a project or we believe we’ve finished a project.

I frequently find the feedback I least want to hear is what my manuscript actually needs. There are a few reasons why I resist. The suggestions may be difficult to implement. Maybe I’m tired of working on the project. Or perhaps reader is asking me to be more vulnerable than I had intended, or he wants me to wade through painful territory.  

You do not need to implement every bit of feedback you receive. Doing so could turn your pretty good manuscript into a chaotic mess. But dare yourself to work harder, write more, and open your heart a little further as you refine your work.

Step Six: Create a Revision Plan

Once you’ve processed your feedback, recycle all hard copies except the clean copy and your notes. Create a hierarchy of items to address starting with big-picture issues, like structure, then work your way down to smaller ones, like line editing your work.

 

Here’s the hierarchy I suggest to clients:

  • Point of view
  • Time Part One (global rules around time and tense)
  • Narrative Arc
  • Structure
  • Endings
  • Beginnings
  • Character Development
  • Pacing
  • Time Part Two (flashbacks, flashforwards, and time markers)
  • Dialogue
  • Prologues and Epilogues (if relevant)
  • Line Editing/Copy Editing/Mechanics

Step Seven: Rest then Revise

Our tendency is to rush into the revision process, but that can be a huge mistake. Instead, wait a few weeks before you begin. During this incubation period your unconscious mind will synthesize the feedback you’ve been given and create more effective solutions than you can consciously imagine. Plus, when you return to your manuscript, you’ll be refreshed and ready to go. In the meantime, maintain your writing chops by working on something else. 

 

The Two Conversations Every Beta Reader Must Have Before Saying Yes to a Manuscript

On Sunday, June 2, 2019, my Memoir in a Year students reached a major milestone: they completed the first drafts of their memoirs. Our final spring class on Thursday, May 30. 2019, included a one-hour writing marathon. Bent over notepads and laptops, tongues pressed to the sides of their mouths, these tenacious writers filled the room with a river-dance-like flurry of fingers typing on plastic keys. Two students, who had already completed their drafts, beamed as they spoke of the exhilarating moment when they held copies of their finished manuscripts.

 

 Over the summer, these students will let their manuscripts rest while they serve as beta readers for each other. We’ve spent the past month preparing for this phase of the writing process.

 

 When deciding to become a beta reader, there are two conversations you must have before taking on a manuscript. The first conversation is with yourself. While you don’t have to be a writer to serve as a beta reader, you must know what skills you bring to the table. Make a list of the genres you like to read and why you enjoy them. Make a second list of books and genres you don’t like. Steer clear of anything on the second list or be prepared to make yourself miserable.

  

Next, ask yourself what you know about the genres you love. Can you identify the two voices in memoir and tell when they’re working well together? Love horror, romance, sci-fi, or fantasy? What do you know about reader expectations in these genres? Knowledge of genre expectations can help you decide whether a manuscript is mislabeled or needs further revision.  

  

Once you’ve considered your interests, think about your strengths as a communicator. Are you good at giving praise? Do you know how to clearly and respectfully broach a problem? What do you say when your attention flags? Not sure what to do? Allegra Huston’s article The Two Basic Rules of Editing has some great suggestions.

Finally, examine what you know about storytelling. Do you know what belongs in a setup? Can you identify plot points? Are you a whiz at writing dialogue? What about structure? Are you willing to learn about these things in order to communicate more effectively with a writer? Mastery of these skills is not mandatory for beta readers; however, some writers are looking for beta readers with a writer’s eye. If that’s not you, simply pass on the project.

  

In my class, my beta reader pairs are required to do the following:

  •  Highlight the strengths in the manuscript and ask questions when they reach points of confusion
  • Mark the moments when the manuscript comes to life and points where their attention fades
  • Flag items that might be tangential or in the wrong place
  • Write a brief letter that includes a synopsis, a summary of the manuscript’s global strengths and areas of greatest concern, and responses to questions posed by the writer

 

 This is a more sophisticated form of beta reading than many writers require; however, I urge you to try some of these exercises. Writing a synopsis for someone else’s manuscript will make it easier to write one for your own. Summarizing a manuscript’s strengths and areas for revision will help you think globally about the writing process. And, who can’t get more practice with praise and asking questions?

  

 Once you’ve finished your internal conversation, it’s time to interview the writer. The initial conversation should be brief and cover a few key points: 

  • What is the writer’s timeline?
  •   What are the writer’s goals for this review?
  • Is the writer looking for a reader’s perspective or a writer’s perspective?
  • What kind of feedback would be most helpful (a conversation, an editorial letter, in-text comments, a summary of your thoughts)?
  • In the past, what feedback has not been helpful? (Some writers find editing marks made with a red pen to be punitive. Other writers hate receiving line edits during early drafts.)
  • Ask the writer to briefly describe their project. There are really only three things you need to know: the genre, the length (more than 95,000 words suggests the book might need major editing, and a comparable published manuscript.

   

After this initial conversation, decide if you’re a good match for this project. While there are many benefits to literary citizenship, it’s better to say no if the writer’s expectations or timeline don’t align with your skills or schedule. Also, if the comparable for this project is a book you hate, it’s likely this manuscript isn’t for you.

  

If the initial conversation goes well, prepare for the handoff. Set expectations regarding your preferred format and method of delivery. It’s okay to ask for a hard copy of the manuscript if that provides you with the best reading experience. If the writer wants in-text comments, MS Word is your best bet. Tell the writer to attach any specific questions or concerns about the manuscript to the last page of the book so your experience of the writing isn’t influenced by the writer’s concerns.

 

 Read the manuscript as quickly as possible. A concentrated review of the manuscript will help you understand the story’s narrative arc and your experience of it. Once you’ve finished reading, write up your notes and schedule a follow-up meeting to share your results. If you’re exchanging manuscripts, consider bringing a small thank you gift or treat for your reader as a token of appreciation.

 

Serving as a beta reader is a gift and a commitment to a writer’s work. It shouldn’t be taken lightly, but don’t confuse it with complete altruism. It’s likely your beta reader duties will teach you more about the craft of writing and your own work than any review of our own manuscript. Have any doubts? Check out this essay by Jeremiah Chamberlin.

Next month, I’ll share some tips regarding follow-up meetings and how to address feedback provided by a beta reader. 

Heart Speak, The Writing Advice Column # 4: Escaping the Forest of Endless Revision

This post was originally published on the Moving Forwards Memoir Collective Blog 

 

Dear Lisa,

I’ve been told it takes an average of ten years to write a memoir. If this is true, I’m right on track—maybe. Let me explain.

Ten years ago, with my new husband’s encouragement, I read his deceased daughter’s journals. Reading about this dead girl I’d never met, a young woman who died by suicide at age twenty-four, unveiled secrets and hard lessons from my past—secrets about faith, trust and honesty I didn’t want to confront. And so, a book idea was born.

Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my story has interconnecting plots linked by a central theme. Weaving the character threads into one story has taken discipline and drive, qualities that are not obstacles for me until I’m mining the next layer of honesty in myself. Then I get lost in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity,” a place where fairies with magical potions like Puck cause me to imagine my name on the cover of a book. The book whose revision I have yet to finish.

I’m currently in the forest of “Revision Times Infinity.” Can you show me the way out?

 

Signed,

Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream

  

Dear Lost in a Midwinter Night’s Dream, 

Revision times infinity. Don’t many of us know it. There is no easy way to write a book and no exact timetable to follow, though memoirs generally take longer than fiction. Memoir poses unique challenges. Unlike fiction, where writers build truths around the worlds they’ve created, memoirists mine their experiences to excavate truths that are sometimes deeply buried. Wandering in the dark and bumping against the walls can lead to disorientation. No wonder you feel lost.

The first step in re-orienting yourself is determining what kind of book you’re writing. Some books work on us while others work through us. Writers of the latter form frequently describe their books as having been channeled. These rare projects require just as much effort, but the way forward is clear. Most memoirs are meant to change us. We’re inspired to write them because our experiences aren’t integrated. We spend years patiently picking them apart, trying to understand their meaning. As Andre Dubus III says in Melanie Brooks’s Writing Hard Stories, “Just because we know what happened, doesn’t mean we know what the hellhappened.” Melanie adds, “It’s the figuring out the meaning within the chronology and understanding its impact that makes the writing part challenging.” In other words, until we know what the hell happened, the narrative arc eludes us.

Beta Reader Boot Camp Part One: What Are Beta Readers and How Do You Find Them?

Beta Reader Boot Camp Part One: What Are Beta Readers and How Do You Find Them?

In April, I attended a three-hour glassblowing class in Asheville, North Carolina with my husband. Outside the studio, the temperature was a balmy sixty-eight. Inside the fire room, it was close to one hundred. To make our glass art, we first dipped long metal rods into a vat of molten glass (think honey on a spoon) then worked to keep the glass on center using a series of rocking motions. To apply color, we pressed the hot glass into discreet piles of colored glass shards then returned it to the furnace. Glassblowing is fast-paced, high-intensity work. Sweat drizzled down my back as  I watched the colors fuse with the glass. Eventually, I couldn’t tell them apart.  

 

 Our instructor told us glass behaves with a certain logic.  Her trained eye was able to see that logic and find the colors even when we couldn’t. Stories also behave according to a certain logic. But like students learning to blow glass, sometimes writers lose sight of their stories’ purpose.

 

There are many ways to gain insight into your works-in-progress. Put them away and pick them up later. Join a writing group. Take a class. Hire an editor. Today, I want to talk about the angels of the writing world: beta readers.

 

Frequently mentioned but often misunderstood, beta readers donate their keen eyes to works-in-progress so writers can improve their drafts. Their invaluable feedback can green light a submission process, help writers revise, or signal the need for professional help.

 

But what about my critique partners?

 

 Workshop partners and writing buddies are invaluable members of your writing community. They read multiple drafts of your work, talk you through plot points, and cheer you on during writing slumps. But their support comes with limitations. It’s likely you’ve had long conversations with them about your project or given them so many iterations of your work they unconsciously fill in gaps readers won’t. 

 

 To advance your project, you need fresh eyes. Enter the beta reader. Ideally, beta readers should have minimal information about your story (more on that next month). Some of the best ones will be strangers. Unlike critique partners, they should only read your work once. This makes them precious and their judicious use crucial.

 

There are two times to consider beta reader engagement: post draft and pre-agent submission. After you’ve created a strong working draft, engaging beta readers can help you course-correct or decide whether to seek professional help. At this stage, choose writerly beta readers who can give you honest feedback about plot holes, points of confusion, pacing, and your narrative arc. Keep in mind, a beta reader’s job is to highlight areas of concern, not fix them. While some beta readers might give you detailed feedback, don’t expect a comprehensive editorial review. If hiring an editor is suggested, revise as much as you can based on beta reader feedback before contacting someone. This will ensure your money is well spent.

 

 Once your manuscript is submission worthy, enlist a second round of beta readers before soliciting agents or publishers. These beta readers don’t necessarily need a writer’s eye, but they should love and understand your genre. The main feedback they need to offer is yes, I would read this book, or no, I wouldn’t, along with a few notes to support their answer.  

  

How many beta readers do I need? 

 

Each book requires a different number of beta readers. Early in the drafting process, I suggest no more than three. If it’s a very early draft, one highly competent reader might be enough. Personally, three is my magic number. Three readers can help you see trends and build consensus around areas of concern without information overload, or worse, creating a split decision over an important point in your work.

 

Before contacting beta readers, identify your manuscript’s needs. All books require general fans of every age. Some books, especially science fiction novels and nonfiction books dealing with highly specialized fields, may require subject matter-experts. Books about minority populations may benefit from sensitivity readers. These considerations could bump up your beta reader numbers, but don’t engage more than five at a time, lest you experience information overload  

How do I find them?

 

There are several excellent ways to find beta readers for your book: attend writing conferences, make connections through local writing centers, or join online writing communities. When selecting beta readers, pay attention to writers and readers who understand your genre, communicate effectively, and treat others with respect.

 

While many beta readers don’t charge for their services, find a way to compensate them. It’s good karma and good literary citizenship. At the very least, offer an in-kind review of their work. If your book is already under contract or very close to receiving one, offer them a free, autographed copy of your book that includes your heartfelt gratitude. If neither of these options is feasible, ask your beta reader to name a meaningful contribution you can make to them or their writing community. Perhaps you could amplify their voice during a social media campaign by sharing their posts or serve as a fact checker.  While this may seem like extra work, it’s really a win-win. Offering some form of compensation can ensure beta readers actually read your book and adhere to deadlines.

 

 When working with beta readers who charge for their services, remember you are entering a business agreement. As the writer, it’s your job to clearly state what kind of feedback you need, to ensure the beta reader understands your genre, and to develop a thick skin. All beta readers, but especially paid beta readers, have zero emotional investment in your work or your success. While this may seem harsh, their honest feedback can be invaluable. There’s nothing worse than believing your manuscript is perfect then sending it out to agents who never respond or send generic rejections.

 

 As you mull over your beta reader needs, consider becoming one. Serving as a beta reader is a lot like learning glassblowing. Each time you provide a critical eye toward a writer’s work, you’ll sharpen your understanding of story logic. With trained eyes, you’ll have a better sense of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses and learn the skills needed to revise like a pro.

 

Next month, I’ll write about the conversation you should have with beta readers before you get started and the skills needed to become one. 

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