Last week I taught an online class about story openings for novel & memoir. Everyone was invited to submit their first pages for a rather public critique.
I tweeted some of the best tips, which you’ll find at the end of this
Here I’d like to share the most common
challenge I see with memoirs and novels. First up: memoir. (Later: novels.)
Most Common Memoir Challenge
far the most common problem is an unrelenting focus on the visceral
experience of personal pain and anxiety—usually related to the death of
a loved one, the tragedy of illness, the short-term and long-term
effects of abuse.
There was one memoir opening that held
promise—it was about a woman exposing puppy mills. However, the
first page was consumed with her own fears, anxiety, and horror—all in
telling mode—rather than showing us a world we may not have experienced
memoir, you use yourself as the lens through which readers see the
world. You can change the focus or direction of the lens (your eye or
your perspective), but it’s not wise to consistently focus on the lens
itself—or, the inner workings and specifics of your turmoil. It’s
much better to write scenes and describe experiences to evoke a feeling
in the reader, rather than tell them how to feel, or to navel gaze.
The Hardest Truth About Memoirs:
Your Work Isn’t Publishable Just Because You Survived Something Difficult
I think Rachelle Gardner expressed it best on her
recent post, where she responds to a woman who isn’t sure if her story
of surviving cancer twice would be considered marketable:
I’m sure you know, at any given time there are over 5 million Americans
living with cancer. Every one of them is living an incredible story, so
this is not to reduce the importance of yours, only to say that many
people choose to write their survival stories in book form, so only a
fraction will be published. …
Memoir is a demanding genre; it
will only sell if the writing is stellar, and the story is crafted in
way that is very compelling. It usually needs a unique hook or a fresh
spin on a common topic. Some of the bestselling memoirs of the
personal-adversity type either give the topic a humorous spin, are
authored by a celebrity, or are simply beautifully written.
a memoir is not just about your story. It’s about how that story is
written. Lots of people have a story similar to yours; only a few will
be able to write it in such a way that it could become a bestselling
Rachelle has a wonderful way of
communicating with writers and making difficult concepts easily
understood. If you’d like to get more of her expert advice, I highly
recommend her online class tomorrow with Writer’s Digest, How Do Editors and Agents Decide?
Problematic: Opening a memoir w/death of loved one and/or funeral. Will it be anything more than your own cathartic ride?
I feel anxious about stories that start in the conditional perfect. Just get to the REAL world, please!
Avoid character dialogue that offers mini-biographies of people (to fill reader in on back story & history).
I prefer characters’ thoughts be integrated right into POV of story – not separated out in italics as separate phenomenon.
especially distracting when story is told in 3rd person POV, but
character’s thoughts are italicized in 1st POV. Mind jumble.
peeve: When writers use company names & brand names liberally in
their descriptions/characterizations. Feels like crutch.
story openings w/characters asleep or waking up. Almost as annoying:
Openings w/characters watching other characters sleep.
Most difficult part of 1st page critiques: Many writers have not found rhythm yet. Best way to illustrate: http://bit.ly/aSdluS
Problematic: Opening up w/character’s inner monologue, contemplating themselves/life. Are you as good as Dostoevsky?
I love an opening that in 300 words can make me really fall in love with (or hate) a character. I’m hooked!
I do not recommend you start your story w/character thinking, “This isn’t happening.” (This opening is in fact quite common!)
Very tough: Starting your story w/dialogue & little/no indication of who is speaking or what context is. Readers get lost.
writers overwrite. More detail/description, more explaining than
needed. Even I do it. But you have to go back & cut cut cut!
favorite opening: Description of perfect weather outside, w/character
waking in bed, peering out window, thinking about day.