June 23, 2022 § 15 Comments
For an agent, publisher or reader to keep going, your first pages must:
1) establish the main problem or quest
2) make us want to spend time with the protagonist (not the same as liking them)
3) teach us the rules/theme of the book we’re entering.
I’ve read a lot of book beginnings this week, between submissions for today’s webinar, in which Jane Friedman and I will analyze queries and first pages, and finding examples of published books to talk about. Some of what I’m noticing: unpublished manuscripts—even “final” drafts—start with backstory. Or setting up relationships. Or giving a sense of mood, or bringing the reader into the setting. Or establishing exactly why the protagonist might develop a goal…later.
Published books start with action.
As I read sample queries, I looked up books that authors listed as comps. Books they aspire to be like; books they hope to be shelved next to. Time after time, the main problem or quest was established in the first paragraph. In memoirs:
Cheryl Strayed loses a hiking boot and tells us what she’s set out to do and why it’s such an unlikely quest. Why is she doing it? Read on…
Jeannette Walls sees her mother digging through a sidewalk garbage can, and keeps going. Why doesn’t she stop? Read on…
Suleika Jaouad starts itching. What’s wrong with her? Read on…
Some genres have first-pages conventions. I looked at middle grade books, all written in first person, all starting in the middle of a scene that summarizes the whole problem of the book. I looked at young adult books, all establishing a strong-voiced narrator about to enter a new situation they’re dreading/anticipating. Can an author do something unconventional? Sure! But they’ve got to pull it off beautifully, and they’ve got to do it on purpose, not because they didn’t carefully examine other books in their genre.
For your own pages, skip the backstory (and any big world-building chunks). Let the reader figure it out from how the protagonist interacts with the world. This includes relationships. When you find yourself writing, “I leaned against my husband Paolo, and we watched our daughter Jane,” pick either the relationship or the name. The reader can figure out the name from dialogue, or the relationship from behavior. Keep place references casual. Not, “I pulled into the gravel driveway of our two-story mock Tudor that my wife Bobbie and I bought twelve years before,” but “pulled into the driveway,” or “got home.” Don’t lay out a floor plan or a family tree—get the reader into the story. Work in details as the narrator interacts with the setting while pursuing their main action.
What makes a protagonist someone we want to spend time with? Voice is a big reason. For memoirs, tell your story like you’re telling a friend, but better. As if you’re relating that cocktail-party story you’ve told before—genuine, but a little more polished.
You’ve probably also heard of “Saving the Cat”. This concept, named by Blake Snyder, means establishing the humanity of the character we’re going to spend time with. Maybe they literally save a cat from a tree before heading into the bar for a pre-recovery binge. Maybe they show a small kindness. I love this moment from the first pages of Free Lunch, middle-grade autofiction from Rex Ogle. The young narrator has just fought with his mother in the supermarket parking lot, upset about the family’s poverty. Then:
I pull a shopping cart from the pen. One of the wheels is wonky and spins left and right instead of rolling straight. I consider putting it back, getting a new one, but then I feel bad for it. It’s not the cart’s fault it’s messed up.
It’s a beautiful moment of saving the cat, and a remarkable craft moment—we love the narrator because the narrator feels compassion. For a shopping cart. In a sentence that also states a primary theme of the book—it’s not my fault I’m messed up.
Finally, your first pages must teach the “rules” of the book. What’s the tone? What genre are we entering? How will this story be told?
Kiese Laymon’s Heavy opens rhythmically, urgently—he’s going to tell a personal story that’s hard to tell, and he has to keep going before losing the nerve. This book will be voice-driven, the reader learns. Baratunde Thurston’s How to Be Black opens with a dryly funny author’s note. The reader learns that this book will be self-referential, and the format is part of the story. Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts opens with references to Wittgenstein and anal sex. The reader is either 100% in for this smart, visceral journey, or they’re going to put the book down before page two. By giving your reader a sense of the rules, they are already leaning in, meeting you on the page, anticipating what comes next.
Take a look at the published books you’d be thrilled to share a shelf with. What do those pages do? Are the quest, voice, rules and theme clearly established? Does the book start with an action? What, specifically, makes you want to spend time with the narrator? Then look at your own pages—are you doing the same things? If you’re choosing not to, what else have you done that’s just as strong or stronger?
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you’d like to hear these concepts discussed in more detail, plus pages and queries analysis, please join her and Jane Friedman today (or on the replay!) for Why Is My Book Getting Rejected?
March 2, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Rae Pagliarulo
“I’m having a writer/identity crisis,” I say to my therapist, whose smile is glowing from my laptop screen.
“I know!” she blurts back. “The very best kind. This is huge.”
I have never been one to buy into that narrative that to make art, a person has to suffer. The Struggling Artist trope is tired and typical, I think, and it only exists because capitalism doesn’t reward creativity – not because suffering begets it. But here I am, trying to navigate my own relationship between the two, and to be honest, I’m totally lost.
For as long as I can remember, I have been 3 things: the resentful daughter of a high-functioning alcoholic, a person dealing with undiagnosed unipolar depression, and a writer. Most of my writing has been about navigating and making sense of the first two things. I’ve always felt like I had no control over either of them. No matter what I did, my dad careened between Father of the Year and a loopy, self-destructive drunk, crying on the floor, and my depression seemed to come and go as it pleased, never really going away, just lightening up enough that I could function half the time. Even if there were ways to make things better, my depression wouldn’t let me see them – I could not imagine being another way. This mindset was all I knew.
By the grace of someone (more likely Joan Didion than God) I managed to eke out a writing life, and for all the many times I tried to work out the puzzles of my codependent, obligation-filled existence, there always seemed to be more unanswerable questions to essay my way through. My father’s impact on me and the tinge of depression-gray affected all areas of my life, hurling me into conundrums in my romantic relationships, friendships, even work. Now, not only was I thoroughly steeped in this mindset, but I had also created an external narrative, a writerly identity, defined by that mindset. It wasn’t just a perspective, my mounting essays and articles insisted – it was reality.
Then, in the last couple of years, all while navigating the pandemic, two big things happened. First, my father unexpectedly died. Second, I finally decided it was time to go on antidepressants. During this time, there was no creativity, no journaling, no writing, no generation of anything new at all. I was just figuring out how to live.
Now, I am 2 ½ years out from my father’s death, and 6 months on Lexapro, and I find myself in a peculiar, totally unfamiliar place.
I am, for the first time in my life, good.
After much reflection and prayer to the Universe and digging into ugly, hidden places, I feel like my relationship with my dad has healed (maybe even improved?) since his passing, and I haven’t had a depressive episode in months. There is room in my brain for things I haven’t considered before – good things! Positive things! Possible things!
But when I sit down to journal or write or even scribble nonsense, I find myself coming up empty. The two biggest factors which defined my narrative – my reality – are now forever altered, and even though I am feeling so good as a person, I have no idea who I am on the page.
What do I have to say, I wonder, when there is no crisis to puzzle through? When my perspective is clear? When all the resentment and obligation I felt towards my dad has been replaced with forgiveness and affection? What do I have to say now that the two big hairy problems that made my existence such a struggle are transformed?
I know that this is not a new problem, but it’s complicated by the question of voice as well. Was my persona on the page fully informed by my past reality? Is it possible that now, without feeling the tension of pushing against my circumstances, that my very voice has changed? My ability to find a moment of levity in the middle of heartbreak – what happens to that after the heart is healed?
My instinct tells me that it’s too soon to answer any of these questions. And perhaps the answer isn’t waiting in some reachable place – perhaps it’s a journey of starting over. Of coming to the page anew, without the trappings of the past weighing me down. As a nonfiction writer, it feels scary not to lean on retold stories from my life, but perhaps this is the exciting place of possibility that my therapist is so thrilled to witness – the ability to find out what I think, what I feel, what I believe, what I wonder, within a completely new context. Not just to reach back and say, “This is how I got here,” but to also extend forwards and find a way to say, “This is where I’m going.”
Rae Pagliarulo (she/her) is the Associate Editor of Hippocampus Magazine and has published poems, articles, and essays with Full Grown People, the Manifest-Station, r.kv.r.y quarterly, Bedfellows, the Brevity Blog, and more. She is the co-editor of Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction from Books by Hippocampus, and by day, she works as a consultant, helping Philadelphia nonprofits to achieve their missions through strategy and fundraising.
April 12, 2021 § 15 Comments
By Michelle Redo
About five years ago, I downloaded my first audiobook. It was Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road. She’d just been interviewed about it on the prominent public radio station I worked for and I thought it would be a great way to test drive my new Audible subscription. I climbed onto the elliptical machine at 5:30 am before the onslaught of my workday and hit play as I began to pedal. The narration opened by clarifying that the introductory sections would be read by the author, but the book itself would be narrated by Debra Winger. What the…? Gloria Steinem shopped out telling her own life story to someone else!?
I was aghast. I found it difficult to continue (although I did… Debra Winger wasn’t too shabby a substitute.) But I loved the experience of listening to a book and thereafter found myself searching for good listens by a single criterion, memoir narrated by the author. True, not every author is a great narrator by default, but they are indeed the keeper of meaning. This simple key unlocked Heather Harpham’s gentle voice revealing the struggle of her baby born with a life-threatening blood illness. I learned what I had in common with Trevor Noah as he told me about his religious mother growing up in South Africa. Shonda Rhimes confessed her year-long experiment to just say yes to all the scary opportunities that came her way, despite her fears and anxieties. As these people generously shared their lives with me, I’ve counted them as my friends. Friends who have sat down in front of a microphone, pretending it was my ear and told me their story. Themselves.
This wasn’t so different from my job at the radio station, working with reporters and hosts to promote their features or shows. One day a new reporter followed me into the sound booth next to my office. She was young but super accomplished. She’d been published in the New York Times and The Atlantic, had a PhD From Oxford and was a Rhodes Scholar.
She looked over the promo script I’d written about her story as I closed the door behind us. We hadn’t worked together yet.
“I know I have a high voice.” Her eyes flashed a pre-emptive confession. “I’ve been told to try and use my chest voice.”
Her voice is indeed high, perhaps obscuring her expertise and experience. But if I had a hundred dollars every time a female reporter said that to me… well, I’d have hundreds of dollars. They’d been told to use a more demure sound. Bring the tone down.
I too had been told this in my twenties. I did sound young. Worse, I sounded insecure (probably because I was insecure.) So I told myself, I didn’t really like talking anyway. I far preferred the scripting, directing, and editing side of the production glass. And in recent years I’ve noticed an increasing number of younger sounding voices on the radio. Voices that convey gravitas through their soprano register. At first, I felt a little resentful at what I’d missed out on. But I decided not to dish out what I’d gotten.
“Well, your voice is high…” I agreed with this reporter, “but that’s who you are. And you’re the expert on the topic of your story. So you can certainly assert what you have to say with confidence. Just hold your own with it.” In the years since, her reports have uncovered hidden toxins in drinking water; articulated nuances in important ballot questions; dug into the science behind the coronavirus in its early weeks. The “high-voiced” reporter has won numerous awards for her reporting.
Now I’m a freelancer, and as I was recently preparing to co-lead a workshop aimed at coaching writers in reading their own work aloud, my partner suggested we ask some writers what they’d most want to get out of such a class. I’d already begun compiling a tip sheet of techniques and practices for them… but their single immediate response? I don’t like my voice! How can I change it to sound better?
Uh-oh! I wasn’t expecting that!
My blunt response: you can’t.
Allow me to play this out…Your voice is your primal auditory thumbprint. It’s why a long-ago friend says, “It’s so good to hear you!” Our voices reveal emotion and meaning that words alone can’t. As with our writing, our voice is a simple thing to aspire to, yet an elusive, delicate piece of ourself to nurture, to coax. A unique gift that must be diligently, bravely unveiled. But simple is rarely easy.
So when you next find yourself in front of a microphone or an audience (let’s hope sometime soon!) remember this: your voice is the perfect vehicle to exemplify you, and bring the story of yourself to life. Your voice is you. I’m your listener friend out here, and I just can’t wait to meet you.
Michelle Redo is a freelance podcast producer and thirty-year award winning former public radio veteran at WGBH in Boston. She’s taught audio production at the Banff Centre. She’s at last sitting down in front of a microphone herself as the host her new podcast, Daring to Tell, which features writers reading their true essays, memoir chapters or non-fiction stories of personal daring.
February 17, 2021 § 13 Comments
By Heather Lanier
I want to write an essay about trying to teach my kids to meditate during a pandemic. But it’s neither easy to write an essay, nor easy to live in a pandemic. Attempting one inside the other, I decide to simplify. My meditation is Christian-based, so I decide before even starting that I’ll submit the finished piece to a Christian magazine.
Writing for an overtly Christian audience is new to me, and at first, it’s kind-of liberating. I can make in-house jokes, referencing Jesus’ more peculiar behaviors like cursing fig trees and doodling in sand. Also, I can employ all kinds of handy code words for complex ideas. God, for instance. Faith.
But then I hit a problem. When I first taught my kids to meditate, we chanted om. Why? Because one of them requested it. And because their father was once a Buddhist monk. And because their mother still opens books by Tibetan nuns and appreciates Sufi poetry. We chanted om because I believe there are many paths to God.
The magazine’s submission word-count is tight, 1,200 words. So in the first draft, I leave out om entirely. Instead, I say we did on day one what we eventually did on day five: Sat in silence for a minute. It’s true. . . but also not true. I walk away from the writing desk knowing I can’t live with the draft as it is.
The nonfiction writer’s only constraints are facts. And there are sometimes ethical reasons to change those facts. We change the name of a doctor who harmed us because, despite malpractice, he could sue. But whenever we consider twisting the facts because we don’t know how else to artistically handle the complexity of real life, we should make ourselves sit back down at the desk and figure out a way to stay truthful and tell a readable story. Doing so reteaches me again and again this lesson: If you work with the truth long enough, it will always yield a better piece of writing.
Why does this happen? I suspect because working with the messiness of truth requires us to punch out new spaces in the confines of prose, like someone knocking down walls in their home to add a playroom, an indoor swimming pool, or a personal arboretum. Trees in the living room? Why, yes! We build unexpected things inside the requirements of our genres, which means we innovate—which is what good art in any form requires.
So I write om back into the story. I describe the half-harmonic, half-discordant chord between my kids and me.
And then something interesting happens: getting honest about om enables me to write in a voice that’s honest about my whole inter-spiritual perspective. The voice is unabashed, and unapologetic. She’s no longer concerned with an arena of Christian readers.
In fact, I’m suddenly not writing to any arena. I’m now writing to a person, singular and intimate. This person doesn’t necessarily subscribe to one religion or another, but she’s wholly interested in whatever mongrel version of “prayer” I taught my kids a week ago. This person is a friend.
I should be surprised by none of this. Julianna Baggott once said that if you want to write any piece of writing, don’t imagine an audience. “Imagine whispering your story urgently into one person’s ear.” In Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, which I share with my graduate students, Gornick explains how finding the right voice can help a writer elucidate the story, “the wisdom, the insight, the thing one has come to say.”
The voice I’ve found has its own accord. Where the voice of the early draft could only conclude with canned understandings of faith, using words like “grace” and “God” as unopened suitcases, this new voice lands on a final paragraph that feels utterly new to me.
This is what writing coaches mean when they implore you to “find your voice.” But as Mary Karr explains in The Art of Memoir, the only way she has been able to “find her voice” for a book-project is to write her way into one, a task that sometimes takes hundreds of pages. Luckily, sometimes it only takes a handful of false starts and a few secretive oms.
Heather Lanier’s memoir, Raising a Rare Girl, was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Her essays have appeared in The Sun, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Salon, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of Writing Arts at Rowan University in New Jersey, and her TED Talk has been viewed over two million times.
July 8, 2020 § 2 Comments
By Lisa Levy
For the past 20 years or so I was a critic—a critic with some ambition, but no desire to reveal myself separately from my thoughts. I started reviewing books as a sideline when I was in an English PhD program and then I discovered I liked my side gig better than my main one. I got more actual readers, as opposed to what I would have publishing academic papers, where nine of your friends-rivals who are also studying Gertrude Stein would read your essay (or pretend to have read it). Plus, I had an abiding interest in criticism, and as I studied the canonical writers most of them had a bent for criticism too: Henry James, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot. When I was a critic I was incorporeal, a creature concerned only with judging a book (it was usually a book, sometimes two, or sometimes music or a TV show) as objectively as possible. I was an aspiring 21st century secular version of Emerson’s transparent eyeball, an image I studied in grad school which has haunted me ever since: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
So—God thing aside—I reveled in being a critic, in judgment, in writing as if my thoughts were incontrovertible truths. I let some of myself slip in, like my favorite critics did—Susan Sontag, Geoff Dyer, Wayne Koestenbaum—but I guarded the part of myself that could be hurt not if someone did not like my writing but if someone disliked my writing so much that they disliked me. I’ve never asked other writers if they also suffer from this slippage between writer and work, if they feel rejected when their work is ignored or badmouthed, if they can’t help but want to know the writers they admire and to demean the ones they dislike, whether for personal or professional reasons. I was expert at the latter. I kept a list of writers in my head who had gotten assignments I coveted, or who had written something I liked so much I immediately detested the brain that birthed it. The stakes are so low in writing, the plumb assignments so rare, that to indulge in this kind of behavior is pure petulance—but a writer’s ego is a fragile thing.
My struggle with low with self-esteem curtailed my professional ambitions. I didn’t try to submit my work to the best places, and I didn’t really think about why. My insecurity was so ingrained I wondered if I’d ever make it to the next level, the one where the glossy magazines come to you, the one where editors took you to lunch and asked you if you had any ideas, or they emailed urgently to secure you to review the book everyone was buzzing about. Your piece would be on the cover of the magazine, of course, your name in twenty-four-point font.
Now I hope you are not expecting some magical advice about how to escape the most common writer’s traps: low self-esteem, impostor syndrome, extreme bitterness, and death by comparison. The way I did it was simple: I wrote more, and I wrote differently. I burst out of my critical mode, silenced the voices that told me I was too ambitious, too pretentious, and not worthy of critiquing writing because mine was subpar.
For me, the way out of the critical conundrum was to do what comes naturally: to think more about myself, and how I could be more of a presence in my writing. In transforming into the transparent eyeball my graduate school training had stolen the I from me. Seizing the first-person enabled me to make assertions not just as the voice of a publication, or of some free-floating critical entity, I gained confidence. At first I used my new voice sparingly, but as I did it more I started to listen and I liked how it sounded. I started writing personal essays, leaving other writers out of my pieces, and they turned out okay, and then better than okay. I published them, and people responded.
Don’t misunderstand me: I didn’t suddenly land a bushel of personal essay assignments just because I published a few, one of which got a fairly large audience because it was about my migraines and sick people love to read about their own illness. Yet publishing a few was exactly what I needed to feel legitimate, like I didn’t have to lean on the ideas and the voices of other writers. I had learned to redirect my critical voice so it wasn’t dismembering a book—or me—but something in the world I needed to break down, turn over, and discuss with some urgency, like my chronic migraines; my sad and comic dating history; or my love affair with vintage dresses. I worried I would come off as shallow, or pathetic, or deluded. But I didn’t. I wrote personal essays with charisma, with a bit of arrogance, with humor among moments of despair.
In short, I wrote like a human being, like someone who doubts and who believes, who loves and hates, who marches headfirst into the future and who quivers at the idea of the unknown. I wrote like a person terrified of change and eager for experience. I wasn’t just a critic anymore. I was a person, and I wrote like one.
Lisa Levy has been a freelance writer and editor for almost 20 years, focusing on essays, criticism, feminism, and self-fashioning. She has written for many publications, including The New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, the Millions, the Rumpus, TLS, Boulevard, Hazlitt, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is also a contributing editor and columnist at Crime Reads and is working toward a nonfiction MFA at Goucher College. A longtime New Yorker now based in Toronto, she has work forthcoming in Assay, Narratively, the Missouri Review, and Guernica.
March 12, 2020 § 16 Comments
Early in my writing journey—we’re talking 1980s—I took a creative writing class with a famous novelist professor. One day the class workshopped a story I’d written about an adolescent girl with anorexia. Lo and behold, my classmates liked it. One boy was so captivated by a scene of the protagonist puking into her mother’s kitchen sink he asked, “Did you, like, have that experience?” (Spoiler alert: Yep, the story was thinly-veiled fiction.)
Then my famous novelist professor chimed in. He said, “I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?” My classmates shuffled in their seats. We hadn’t had a lesson on the craft of voice, much less the implications of voice for someone who has been conditioned to silence her truth. “You can have all the energy of Tolstoy,” he said, “but if you don’t have a voice? You’re not a writer.”
I aborted my fledgling plan to pursue an MFA in creative writing.
Voice or no voice, after college I continued to write my life as fiction. But now the question Do I have a voice? peppered my notebooks. I read everything I could find on writing and voice. I also studied voice as intrinsic to female conditioning. I learned it’s not uncommon for an adolescent girl to internalize shame as her body develops, and that such shame can silence her voice.
My studies on women and voice led me to Gail Collins-Ranadive’s course Writing Re-creatively: A Spiritual Quest for Women. Gail said, “We will write to tap into what’s already within us, hidden, hibernating, waiting to be reawakened and given voice.”
In Gail’s writing circle, I tapped into something within me that felt larger than me. A voice, I began to understand, derives from the spiritual essence of oneself; you can no sooner not have a voice than not have a soul.
Do any of you hear a voice?
Years passed. By day I worked for a magazine, wrote book reviews, became an educational writer and editor. I continued to write and began to lead women’s writing circles.
One day, browsing a bookstore, I discovered Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others. Pat said, “Those of us who teach—really teach—know that we are simply midwives to that which is already in our students. Our only task is this: to prepare a place, to welcome, to receive, to encourage.”
Yes, oh, yes.
During a writing prompt in Kate Hopper’s course Motherhood & Words, my mother’s red medical book appeared on the page. Uh-oh. There’s a story I swore I’d never write: The time my mother opened her red medical book to human papilloma virus and shamed me in the aftermath of a rape I was not then able to name.
Kate said, “I want to hear more.” Then she said: “When you’re ready to write it.”
Twenty-five years after the famous novelist professor said I don’t hear a voice I got my MFA in creative nonfiction. But guess what? I completed my MFA without writing a single word about my mother’s red medical book. That’s okay: I was not yet ready to write that story. Readiness I have learned is essential to the memoir-writing process: We write our way toward emotional readiness.
Instead, I wrote stories that skirted the red medical book even as, unbeknownst to me, I wrote my way toward it.
I wrote my way toward my voice.
I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?
I wish I’d said something back then on my behalf, but I was years from knowing that a voice, like a self, can retreat into hiding. It’s taken me time and experience as a writer and teacher to understand that, yes, everyone has a voice, and part of a writing teacher’s role is to create a safe space for that voice to emerge. “Finding our voice has to do with finding our safety,” Julia Cameron says.
Safety, it turns out, induces readiness.
Every turn in my writing journey readied me to write the story I once swore I’d never write. I’m now writing my memoir Searching for Salt. At the heart of this story? My mother’s red medical book.
The girl with anorexia? Yeah, her, too.
Patricia Hampl says (I’m paraphrasing) we write in service of the story that wants to be told, which may or may not be the story we want to tell.
Know this: A voice for any given story emerges from the subject at the heart of that story. If shame shrouds a story’s subject so, too, its voice may hover beneath shame. A memoirist whose subject has been silenced by shame must write past shame to the voice at the heart of her story.
What’s your red-medical-book story?
I want to hear it. When you’re ready.
Marilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy, where she teaches women who are done with silence how to claim their voice and write their memoir stories with confidence, craft, and consciousness. Her own memoir stories appear in River Teeth, Under the Gum Tree, Superstition Review, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Follow her on Facebook.
September 20, 2016 § 12 Comments
A guest post from Kelly Kautz:
Every copywriter has an unfinished manuscript tucked in a desk drawer, goes an old advertising cliche. The manuscript represents an identity crisis, a fraught relationship between commerce and art.
“You know the popular conception,” a 1960 New York Herald Tribune article summarized. “He’s writing about Frabjous Krispies for his pocketbook but here are tears in his beard.”
I, too, am a copywriter with a manuscript. And until a few months ago, I too had an identity crisis. But mine wasn’t a struggle between art and commerce. I just couldn’t find my voice.
The Story I Almost Couldn’t Tell
My book is rooted in family history: my great-grandmother might have belonged to a Satanic cult. I’d overheard bits and pieces of the story throughout childhood: She’d always been a bitter woman; then she fell in with a strange crowd. People began disappearing. And the dirt floor of her cellar, well, that was a perfect place to hide bodies.
No one had substantiated the family rumors. After I became a mother, I decided to try, and write a book about my investigation. I interviewed family members, and jotted down drafts. I spent my lunch hours at the ad agency searching digitized newspaper archives for clues. I envisioned the finished book to be a literary look at family secrets. But I couldn’t untangle the narrative threads: The fallibility of memory. The true crime angle. Genealogy. Satan.
How could I capitalize on the occult angle without sensationalizing it? Was I writing a history book, a memoir or—Satan forbid—a piece of pulp?
I struggled with these questions for nearly a year. I studied the Hero’s Journey and mapped out each chapter. This tightened up the book’s story arc, but left me no closer to understanding its nuances. Discouraged, I began spending my down time gossiping with coworkers and stalking the employee breakroom for snacks.
That’s how I found my solution. I’d wandered into the breakroom for a third cup of coffee one afternoon when I overheard a coworker explaining brand pyramids to an intern.
“All great brands are built upon something universal,” he said. “That’s what makes them relatable. The trick is to capture something universal and remain true to the things that make the brand unique. Those unique parts sit at the top. They’re what everyone sees. But that universal part provides the foundation.”
Universal yet unique, I thought. Huh.
That evening I sat down and listed my book’s narrative threads. Then I began organizing them into a pyramid of my own, from the most universal to the most unique. How did brain science fit in? Where did genealogy go? I crossed out threads and added new ones. Eventually a structure started to form.
Family was the foundation of my story; the most universal of all the angles. Next came motherhood, which had sparked my investigation—also universal, though a little more focused. Mental illness was a third theme—not quite universal, though all-too common. I’ve struggled with OCD my entire life, and suspected this or some other mental illness played a role in my great-grandmother’s behavior.
And finally, that weird little detail about the occult. The part that everyone noticed, and everyone remembered.
Calling this a brand pyramid isn’t quite accurate. It’s just an organized list of narrative themes. But once I’d created it, writing my book became easier. Talking about it seemed more natural. I felt like I’d finally found my voice.
Finding Your Own Voice
I’ve always been interested in a long list of strange and disparate things. Perhaps that’s why I like advertising: I get paid to write about candy bars and extrusion machines, all in the same afternoon.
Rather than confining me to a narrow set of topics, this pyramid has empowered me. I no longer feel obligated to insert an occult angle into every blog post I write. I’ve opened up about my personal experiences with motherhood and mental illness, because I finally understand their relevance.
Most importantly, I get excited when I look at my brand pyramid, because I’m reminded of what drew me to this story in the first place. I notice connections between themes that I hadn’t seen before. But it took me a long time to get to this point. I spent many afternoons frowning at my computer, with too much to say and no way to say it.
If you find that it’s taking you a long time to find your voice, too, don’t panic. Explore everything that feels relevant, and a few things that don’t. Keep evaluating and re-evaluating which angles feel right, and which topics draw your interest. Ask yourself: which parts of my story are universal, and which are specific to me alone?
Your direction might take the form of pyramid like mine, or a mission statement, or a mind map. Maybe it will look like something else altogether. In the end, the form doesn’t matter; only that it leads you down the path to your best work. Even if your best work turns out to be about Frabjous Krispies.
July 28, 2014 § 6 Comments
I started listening to podcasts because I was commuting from Kalamazoo, Michigan to Waynesville, Ohio every weekend. Five hours each way, and Beyoncé’s a boss but there’s only so many times in a row I can belt out Single Ladies before my passengers start to complain (twice). Enter This American Life, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, and the
skull-pounding nightmare delightful folksiness of Prairie Home Companion.
As I’ve become a radio storyteller and producer, I’ve started listening to podcasts more carefully. Radio producers thrive on making a signature sound for their own shows, a unique style that’s the equivalent of “voice” in written work. If you’re looking for inspirational approaches to structure, viewpoint and story, check out these listens. The links below take you right to the episodes, or click on the podcast title to get to their homepage, where you can subscribe in the audio service of your choice.
If you’re writing hybrid or braided essays:
Radiolab mixes anecdote, conjecture, expert testimony, historical fact and contemporary experiments to tell the stories behind science. Their narrative style is a great example of mixed genres coming together to tell a single story.
Episodes to start with: Rodney vs Death, Colors, and Are You Sure? (This one is a three-story episode. Be aware that the third story–which is one of the most incredible stories I’ve ever heard–is not kid- or work-safe)
If you’re having trouble plotting, or want to amp up your humor:
Snap Judgment has a young, quirky feel, and weaves sound design into storytelling that’s often live. They’re a great listen for sequential stories with surprising endings. If you’re trying to nail down an “…and I learned that…” ending without sounding trite, Snap’s stories can help. If you’re trying to up your humor, they’re often very funny, too.
If you can’t figure out whether an incident is a story, or are struggling with finding dramatic movement in a reflective essay:
Third Coast International Audio Festival has its own podcast series, but something that’s served me well is the recordings of workshops and panels at their biannual convention. In particular, check out the “Pitch Perfect” and “Pitch Panel” sessions. After listening to several in a row, I was able to start distinguishing what was a story and what was a vignette or an observation even before the panel responded to the pitcher.
Start with: Pitch Perfect Session 2 from the 2012 Conference
If you’re approaching a difficult topic:
Love+Radio producer Nik Van der Kolk is a master of revealing a nonfiction story like a mystery. His use of low-fi sound and recordings that would be considered “flawed” by other shows is fascinating. Listen to the way information is slowly revealed to suck the listener right in before they shy away from the topic.
One to start with: Jack and Ellen (Most of Love+Radio is not kid- or work-safe. Again, incredible story, put in your earbuds or have grown-up passengers)
Happy listening–and if you’ve got a favorite podcast or episode, post a link in the comments–I’m always on the lookout for a good listen!