‘A wonderful tension akin to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca… you sink in and emerge in a state of wonder.’ The first blogged review of my new novel Ever Rest.
Mountains of thanks to Martha Engber.
Roz is the author of two previous novels — My Memories of a Future Life and Life Form Three — as well as the memoir Not Quite Lost and the book for writers Nail Your Novel. Besides being a writing coach and instructor, she’s a ghostwriter for bestselling authors.
Ever Rest by Roz Morris is the kind of book you sink into and emerge from in a state of wonder. This beautifully written story steeped in the majesty of music and mountains is balanced on the riveting concept of a rock star, whose presumed death after an accident while climbing Mt. Everest, casts a years-long pall over the many lives he touched…
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This email just arrived.
I have completed a manuscript about my childhood trauma and how it shaped my life, to tell my truth, to finally heal and put it behind me. I need to know if it is good enough to publish and am therefore seeking an editor who can proofread and correct mistakes.
Has any other year taken us so far into reflection and self-examination? These last few weeks I’ve had many emails like this.
So if you’re considering these questions, here are some answers.
You don’t need an editor yet
The first phase isn’t to look for an editor! Especially not a paid one. But you’re right to seek another opinion on the manuscript.
Beyond spelling, proofreading and publishable writing
You need to look at more than spelling mistakes and proofreading.
Here’s something that few people suspect unless they’ve had a memoir published. The manuscript that the writer completes, in those solitary, searching hours, is not usually ready for readers. This is not a question of spelling and polish. It’s about writercraft and your audience.
The writer’s draft, the reader’s draft
We write memoirs, initially, for ourselves. And that’s a considerable feat. We collect the material, get it straight in our minds and set on the page. Talk our soul through its troubles, tell it to the page. Bring order, maybe catharsis, closure.
For some, that journey may be enough – and has immense value in itself. But that’s not usually a version you can publish.
Not just about you
For a reader, the memoir is not just about you. It is a journey for them to understand the world through your unique experience. While they will respect your honesty and ordeals, and will want to be on your side, they’ll need help.
There is much your reader will find difficult to understand – people, behaviour, motivations. So they will need context – more than you realise.
They’ll also need more insight than your private memoir might have provided – insight about the other people, insight about you. Memoirs of this type have to navigate some of our most uncomfortable behaviour – when we were deluded, or scared, or cruel. When you write for yourself, you might not have to acknowledge all these dimensions, especially if you’ve been harshly wronged. But if you write for a reader – who is a stranger – you often need a higher degree of wisdom about everybody’s muddles, imperfections and worries. You don’t necessarily need to forgive or redeem them. But you do need to understand them.
You also have to apply these principles to yourself. Although you’re the ‘I’ voice, the reader doesn’t know you. To them, you are a character in the story, so you must present yourself with the same care, context and insight as any other character, so the reader can know you. This might involve considerable self-examination.
As well as reaching this state of insight, a memoir also needs writercraft. Real life is sprawling and messy. It’s writing craft that will organise this sprawl in a way that will keep the reader engaged.
You need a structure, with a beginning, an end, and some turning points along the way. Although these ideas are more commonly discussed for fiction, they’re just as necessary for real-life stories because they’re essentially how you keep the reader’s curiosity, empathy and attention. Real life doesn’t, in real time, fit narrative paradigms, but you can stretch and condense passages so they form a narrative shape that is compelling.
Especially, consider the ending. Your experience, as lived by you, doesn’t have an ending, but the reader needs one. Where will you let them go? At what point have you given them a satisfying experience? Your book’s ending might be anywhere in the real chronology – in adulthood if the story happened to you as a child. Or you might prefer a more adventurous structure – beginning with the present, swinging backwards in time, then coming again to the present with new eyes. Time in real life is unreversible; in narratives it can do whatever you like.
Other points about structure
There’s also the pacing. Someone else’s pain can quickly become abstract and repetitive. Even the most sympathetic reader can become dulled unless you keep a sense of narrative progress. There’s more about this in my plot book.
How many characters?
You also might have to reorganise your characters. In your personal memoir, the version behind closed doors, you probably included absolutely everyone. But this might be too many characters for a reader to grasp.
Why is this a problem? It’s because the reader is not you. To you, each person is different and distinct, drawn into your story in their own ways. You know all of these intimately, because you lived it, but you don’t have the space to give all that context to the reader. So in a memoir, you usually need to trim your characters.
Also, you need to think about them as dramatic roles in your journey. You often need to combine several real people into one character who represents a force – a supporter, a mentor, an antagonist.
A further point. Can you write about these real people? Even if they’ve moved on from your life and you don’t see them face to face, the internet can keep everyone together. And publishing a book certainly can. You are only a tweet or an email away from anyone’s reaction. You might have to worry about libel, so you have to be very careful about what you say about a person who can be identified.
To answer the question: do you need an editor?
An editor is not what you need at the moment. What you should do now is more drafts.
Keep this one. It serves a valuable purpose in itself. Start a new version, the reader’s version. This time, look beyond your pain.
Look beyond yourself too. A memoir needs to understand everyone, or at least give them the chance to be understood. This applies also to you. There’ll be things you’ll wish you’d done differently, for good or bad. Your actions, reactions and protective behaviour. Understand yourself in those moments and those decisions. You will judge yourself a lot, but while you do that, also remember you’re human. And so is everyone else in your story.
Although you might not need an editor at this stage, you might benefit from a writing buddy who can look at the manuscript and explain where they don’t understand your thinking, where you’ve failed to give context. If you’re struggling to find a structure, they can also suggest where you turned a corner and didn’t realise. And even where you might end.
This might take many passes. That’s normal. I’ve been interviewing a few memoir writers recently on this blog and their books took years – to acquire the distance, the wisdom, the fullest appreciation. Find them here.
First, breathe. Then write a draft for the reader.
Thanks for the green shoot pic, Neal Herbert, Australian Dept of the Interior
If you’d like more writing advice, try my Nail Your Novel books. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk (and my very exciting new novel), look here. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Your first pages – 5 more book openings critiqued by a literary agent, YA author @AJ_Dickenson (and me!) at @Litopia
I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two (this time we had longtime Litopia member and YA author Andy Dickenson @AJ_Dickenson).
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and publishers would consider a manuscript that arrived in their inbox.
As always, the submissions had many strengths. Issues we discussed included the importance of voice in contemporary fiction, the age of the protagonist in a YA novel, whether we’ll want to read novels that feature the Covid-19 pandemic, a lyrically written fantasy that seemed too nebulous, how to begin an action thriller with a sci-fi element, and whether a title was too long, too hard to remember or assertively intriguing. You can see it in the picture above and I’d love to know what you think: too long, just right, too weird, exactly weird enough? It’s a military term, in case that helps you decode it. Drop me a line in the comments because, on the show, we genuinely couldn’t agree on it.
Also, Peter asked me to tell everyone about Ever Rest, which I hadn’t prepared a pitch for, so I had to invent one on the spot. Avalanches of panic until I got myself together.
Enjoy! And if you’ve got a manuscript you’d like critiqued, apply here.
If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, look here (to see a less fumbling pitch of Ever Rest). You can subscribe to future updates here.
What’s a logline?
It’s a sentence or two that illuminates the main theme or story question. Sometimes it’s included on the cover, but not always. Sometimes a subtitle performs the same function as a logline – not so much with novels, but common with non-fiction, memoir and even short stories.
Even if you don’t intend to put a logline on the book cover, it’s handy to have, because it’s a one-shot focused way to begin your sales description. And for all the times when somebody catches you on the hop with this dumbstriking question: what’s your book about?
So loglines are easy to define. And darned hard to write. Imagine your novel of 100,000 words. It’s a long and nuanced experience. I’m sure you’re screaming in your mind: how do I boil that down to one line?
Loglines are on my mind because I’ve been writing one for Ever Rest. More than 100,000 words, so I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.
But I did, eventually. Here’s how.
First, I tried to identify the novel’s central theme or question. Unfortunately, there seemed to be many. My list went: Love, loss, friendship. Betrayal. The haunting power of music. The time-capturing power of music. (Lots about music.) The cruelty of places beyond our warm territories. (Lots about that too.)
This list was not going to give me a logline.
Also, it was looking at the wrong thing.
I wrote several loglines that were very unsuitable. At the time each seemed perfect. Then I’d look again and think, that’s not the best angle.
Some were even misleading. One logline I wrote, which I seriously liked for a while, sounded like genre crime. You can see a journal of them here, in my most recent newsletter, which shows how mistaken you can be about your own book. (Click on the link to the loglines story.)
So I started again.
Find the right question
I looked for questions. This was better.
One question proved to be very useful:
What are people doing in this book that gives it its distinctive emotional flavour?
An event draws these people together. What predicament does it put them all in?
The people are, of course, the key. The main characters. Their relationships. Their biggest troubles. Their central problem, which presents differently on the surface, but deep down is the same issue seen through many windows. The things that, underneath, they need to finish.
I also needed the logline to complement the cover and the title. Your cover designer will have picked one dominant emotion for the cover, so your logline should harmonise with it. Otherwise you’ll confuse your readers and confused readers don’t buy. (I haven’t yet revealed the cover for Ever Rest, so you’ll have to use your imagination for now. But I have ensured that cover, title and logline are in harmony.)
Once you know what you want to say (a major task in its own right), rewrite the logline in emotive, teasing language. Aim for tension. Try:
Questions -‘Is it too late to tell the truth?’ Jill Mansell, It Started With a Secret.
Contrasts – ‘One library. Infinite lives.’ Matt Haig, The Midnight Library.
Conundrums and contradictions – ‘If your life now was another person’s past…’ My Memories of a Future Life (me!).
Also, learn from your comparison titles. These are books that give the reader a similar experience to yours, so study what quality has been isolated for the logline. Also look at their reviews – a perceptive reviewer might have picked words or phrases that exactly capture what you’d like to say about your own book.
Try it now. Take a book you read recently and consider: what logline would you write for this book?
PS My Nail Your Novel workbook contains exercises for writing various kinds of summary for your book, including synopses and pitches.
PPS If you’d like more concentrated writing advice, my Nail Your Novel books are full of tips. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. If you’d like to support bricks-and-mortar bookstores use Bookshop.org. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, look here (to see a very exciting announcement). You can subscribe to future updates here.
Finding your personal magic – talking to @thecreativepenn about forgotten places, historic landscapes and Not Quite Lost
This interview was such fun. You probably know Joanna Penn for her legendary Creative Penn podcast, but here she is in alternative guise – Books and Travel.
She invited me to chat about my memoir Not Quite Lost so we took off our teacher hats and nattered about the pleasures of purposeless wandering, the charm of seasides out of season, and the way a low-key place can be personally magical if we just bring our imagination.
Do come over.