Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Letter To Another Writer Friend

Well, I've done another letter to a friend whose manuscript I read. This one is a memoir. I don't know that my insight is all that profound, but I do try to react to a book the way a reader who is also a writer would. I know you (reader here) have not read the manuscript as I have, but the advice about writing and story and craft can apply to all of us, especially the bulleted list at the end. I often have to remind myself to heed the advice I've given others. Easier said than done, right?

Dear _____, (this is long, sorry)

All right. Finished what you gave me, and I'm going to mail the mss back to you because I made quite a few notes in the margins for you.

Overall, a strong read. Well-written everywhere--your mad skills are evident in the way you capture character and speech patterns and description of Beaufort. Basically, you kick ass when it’s time to write a book. I’m envious beyond belief.

But on to my solicited opinions (and these are ALL opinions):

The first half is unquestionably stronger than the second. Everything up through the wild sex in the newsroom is pretty much spot on. Where I think the book starts losing its forward momentum is around page 105 when Rolling Stone comes into the picture. I was chugging along with Million Year Old Man (MYOM), but then there was a quick succession of men, and I found myself trying to guess which one would become important. Once Junior is out of the picture, you don't have a strong enough conflict to catapult the reader through the middle chapters.

Along the lines of Junior, I have a few thoughts. First, I think you need to drop hints of your dancing background early on. I find it interesting that you don't ever discuss the topic while he's in the picture, so to speak, which might’ve been strategic; however, you have to confide to the reader why not. In any case, the hints have to be there so that when we learn about how big a role dance played in your life at one point, it doesn't look like you're manipulating the story for the sake of ease.

Also, you need to thread the emotional arc about how you feel about Junior and yourself, and this arc should climax with your wish on page 42 that his plane would crash. That wish felt harsh and sudden, not because I didn't agree with you, but I honestly didn't know how you felt about him. You'd protected him so long to your friends and indulged his whims and moodiness at every turn, I wasn't sure where your head was. I don't think this needs to be overt, rather more nuanced with your paragraphs of interior throughout.

Now to the middle chapters: Because you've managed a way to survive Junior, you become a different person, a stronger person, yet Byrne still regales you with life lessons and advice without acknowledging your ability to cope and survive. You don't get credit for evolving as a woman through the acceptance of your mistakes. At this point, her advice feels thin, device-like, as if you (the writer) are looking for another chance to sit on the porch with wine and pound cake and chat until sunset. If anything, she should be building up your decision to separate, but you focus more on her dance company recruitment and how she runs her business. When you do finally bring up separating from Junior and feeling terrible about it, she just tells you to stop feeling guilty. That doesn't sound like her. Too trite for Byrne. Sometimes, I wonder about her feelings about you (the way you've presented them) because she doesn't approve of the boyfriends who come through your life, but she won't say anything about Junior either. It's an obvious void in the conversation, yet your life with Junior carries the first half of the book. Why won’t she engage you directly on the subject? The indirect parables seem disingenuous to me after a while.

Another point: Duncan's declining health cannot carry the middle of the book all by itself. There needs to be another big rock some place.

The revolving door of men post-Junior gets interesting in places, but you never seem to prioritize them. Hence it's difficult to know who will become important and who will fall by the wayside. MYOM keeps popping up in unexpected places in the last third of the manuscript, and I don't know why you never come back to him to clarify that relationship (is that Gary?). I thought Rolling Stone was marginally interesting. Somehow I got the feeling he was temporary, so I never really latched onto him as a character. Byrne's interludes throughout these chapters felt redundant and irksome in places, especially when you leave us hanging about the gold digger comment with MYOM’s family on page 94 to go into Byrne's story about Jefferson Davis Ehrlick. Later, I felt like she was trying to one-up you with her story about Nick—this after your newsroom sex with the hunkish kayak guy (Neptune, was it?).

With Duncan, I feel like Byrne never mourns his passing (at least in real time with you). Does she harbor ANY resentment for losing him too soon or having to share him with other women? Is there any conflict between them at all that you can explore? I feel some tension in her voice when she talks about him--could it be simple sadness that you didn't get to experience him the way she has? Is there something to play up more fully with Alison? Janie’s death? The distance or lack of distance with her adopted daughters? In my opinion, you don’t have a book if Byrne has no conflict inside of her. Something in her needs to mirror the pain in you. That’s why you were so perfect for each other, I suspect. I also suspect that you loved her so much in real life that you’re somehow afraid now to let her feel any real pain on the page. Even in death, you’re still protecting her. I don’t want to get too “Bernie” on you, but I think this is the primary reason the middle chapters lag, and the last third doesn’t quite yet pop.

Most of the middle chapters have mini-crises (e.g. The "whorehouse" comment, Rolling Stone, Byrne's lagging vision), but they miss the punch of anything large. There's potential with Byrne and Alison, but nothing much comes of that. As a consequence, the rotating discussions with Byrne feel more like transcripts and lessons with no practical application. Possible solutions here: playing up the Councilman Queener stuff even more, exploring with depth the effects of Duncan's death on Byrne (she says on page 134 that he died three months before their sixtieth anniversary; I think that would be devastating for her), showing some real threat with the swollen leg (mostly you characterize it as a nuisance, and since it drags on for more than a year, you lose the tension it could bring), and/or bringing in your parents earlier in order to maximize them later on (your father is too underdeveloped if you're going to do the Nicaragua thing; your mother barely gets a mention).

Okay, last third: I think you need to bring the sisters into the story in more developed ways. It seems you could hint of Lisa's conflict with Byrne early on and use that tension to carry the conflict between them. They love each other, but they fight like hell perhaps? I get the feeling Lisa blames Byrne for not embracing Alison the way she does her business. This needs exploring. The way you have it now, the sisters seem like add-ons--which plays odd when you talk about how much these women love Byrne. Where have they been the entire time you've known Byrne? Where were they when Duncan died? They don't even make an appearance in her life, it seems, until it's time to go to Charleston, and that episode rings very thin because there's no relevant reason to go and nothing of note happens while they're there. I think it's an amazing scene when Lisa resigns because Byrne still expects her to be executor of her will when she dies. Sounds just like a mother/daughter relationship, but you've got to make it feel that way to the reader. Lisa needs to be around more. She and Byrne need to interact more.

I also feel you don't play up Byrne's declining health in a way that maximizes the story's tension. I have made careful notes for you on this topic, particularly with reference to her eye (pps 148-9).

As to your parents--if you're going to keep the Nicaragua chapter, you need to find the tie-in back to you and Byrne and Beaufort. Does your relationship with your father in any way inform your relationship with MYOM? If you need to bring your romantic life back into the play in the last third of the book (and I think you do), this could be a nice vehicle, in addition to allowing your parents to play a small role. If you’re going to keep them, they need to show up on the page periodically throughout the entire book, not just in one chapter in the middle and the big one at the end.

General Writing Advice & Observations (if it sounds preachy, I apologize sincerely. I do half this shit myself):

  • Look for tension on EVERY page. I know this sounds excessive, but there must always be a reason for a scene, and conflict drives the train.

  • If nothing is wrong with at least one person inside of a scene, cut it. Write only the scenes where there is a complication with someone on some level that somehow affects you. Stretch the big conflicts; pepper the story with the small ones.

  • Keep opening your thoughts on the page. There are places where you don't mean to be closed off, but you are.

  • Make Byrne more interested in you and less interested in herself.

  • Every time you launch into a Byrne story, make sure it has application to you and what you're going through. Just because she has a story that is similar to what you're enduring doesn't mean she ought to tell it. Avoid too many parables.

  • Don't slap me, but I think you ought to consider converting this book to past tense. The present tense is really problematic with flashbacks and dialogue that summarizes past events, etc. I think this would augment the power of the story, lessen confusion, and minimize awkward verb structures.

  • Watch all dialogue tags. Use "said," "replied," and "asked" whenever possible. You overuse "sputtered" and "tell." Not a hard and fast rule, but I've marked several places where it reads a little too "Hardy Boys."

  • Cut the number of semicolons in the manuscript by 2/3.

  • Look for every place I've drawn a box around a comma. This is a comma splice and needs to be fixed. (See page 36 for quick explanation). Editors will stop reading if these are too pervasive. In nearly all cases, a period does the job nicely.

  • Note the commas I've inserted. You seem to be missing most often commas with compound sentences, intro subordinate clauses, nouns of direct address inside dialogue, and commas in a series.

  • Take a look at transitions. In a few places, they are quite abrupt, which serves the story in terms of conciseness, but in several examples I’ve marked, you need to set up a scene with a more description before launching full bore into the dialogue.

  • Because it's first person narration, contract verbs where you can.

  • Might need to consider another title. There’s a published book already with this title. It’s about the history of the typewriter. I don’t know if it’s a deal breaker, but I don’t know that I love it either. Other possible considerations: Jete or Daughter-by-Byrne. I’m still thinking on this point.

It’s going to be a strong book. It already is. Second half just needs focus and momentum. I have full faith in your abilities, and I enjoyed reading what I did. I’ll be curious how it ends and how you will modify some of this stuff. A few of these changes might be labor intensive and tricky in spots, but I’m convinced they will serve you well when it comes time to submit.

Thus ends the lecture.

Lotsa Love,

No comments: