Posted On September 21, 2012 by Print This Post

A Different Kind of Format Issue – Ask an Editor with Theresa Stevens

Good morning, RU Crew! Today, editor Theresa Stevens is back with another manuscript critique submitted by an RU reader. 

Hello, Theresa!

This month, we have two pages of a manuscript which was submitted without commentary. I suspect it is intended to be YA based on the age of the character and the prominence of the parents, but we don’t know that for sure. All we have are the words on the page, so let’s get to them.

If I don’t write this down, I might die:

Father: We failed miserably as parents. Failed.

Mother: If I had a gun right now, I’d shoot you and feel bad later.

Father: You’re lucky there aren’t any guns in the house.  

On first reading, I was a little confused by this. I thought it might be something like a script, as if the “I” was role-playing on paper. Only later in the page did I understand this was meant to be a diary entry written by the “I” in the first sentence, and that Father and Mother had actually spoken those words – not to each other, but to “I.”  

I think part of what threw me off was the reference to death in the first line, repeated in the third line and echoed in the fourth. I briefly thought the “I” in the first line might be part of the “We” in the second line, or maybe the Mother, who says “I” in the third line. And when she said she would shoot “you,” my first thought was that “you” referred to Father.

In any case, because we don’t know who the “I” of the first line is, and because we don’t know more about the circumstances, this felt a little confusing and circular at first. As I said, I later formed the opinion that this is a diary entry, and that helped clarify the writing for me, but it took a few paragraphs to reach this conclusion. And with first lines, if you confuse ‘em, you lose ‘em. So this needs to be revised to make it more clear. 

This evening, I was called: “disobedient”, “rude”, “evil”, and “a curse on this family”. My parents essentially want to kill me because I didn’t get the scholarship. I got into Columbia with a terrible financial aid package, and we have no money to go. I’m in my room right now and I can still hear them shouting. I’m scared that if I don’t make record of this, one of two things might happen:

a. I’ll forget the impact their words had on me, and it’ll happen again.

b. My parents will actually kill me and feel bad later.

Either way, I need to write it all down.  

I’m going to interrupt this paragraph here to mention that this was the point where I knew what was going on. By this point, I knew that I was reading a diary entry of a troubled young person. But this new clarity doesn’t really help the text, for two reasons. First, the logic is flawed. Writing a journal entry is not, as far as I know, a way to prevent a murder. So, “I’m scared that if I don’t make a record of this, they’ll kill me,” is not an argument that works.

Second, notice how many death threats are made already. I count four, including the thing about the guns. Because of these frequent mentions, I’m also beginning to suspect this narrator is a bit melodramatic, or at least prone to hyperbole. Nobody actually has a gun pointed at the narrator. He or she is in the relative safety of his or her room, writing in a journal – not exactly a high-drama, high-danger scenario. So I’m starting to wonder if the narrator can be trusted.

Third, now I’m also worried about the narrative. Instead of getting a scene in which the parents say these things to the kid, we’re getting a diary entry recapping it later, from the safety and distance of the child’s room. It’s exposition in epistolary form, and this is not a favored form of narrative these days. That’s not to say it absolutely can’t work, but so far, given the other issues in the writing, I’m already starting to think the book would need extensive revision to be publishable.

Imagine for a moment how tense and terrifying the actual scene must have been. Imagine it from the child’s point of view, moment by moment in real story time. Such a version of the scene would be dramatic. It would have to be carefully written so that it doesn’t read over-the-top or melodramatic, but it would still pack more power than the current diary entry format.

Let’s pick up with the next lines of the same paragraph. 

I read this article online about emotional abuse and how it is passed down from generation to generation. And when you think about it, my grandparents tried to do a good job, but let’s face it—they weren’t the best parents. They shouted mean things at my dad. They straight-up abandoned my mother. They treated her as if she was something that shouldn’t be loved. And I feel bad for them, I do.

This shows the danger with this form of writing. We’ve now completely left the moment and are thinking about other moments — articles read in the past, actions of past generations — but nothing that is happening now. Story is made up of events unfolding in real story time, but we’re disconnected from both time and event now. The next few paragraphs continue this problem. 

I want to forgive and forget, but this time, it’s different. I guess I’m really scared and there’s no one I can tell. The website on emotional abuse said that keeping a diary should “alleviate stress and bring relief from the trauma”. However, the pastor at church just gave a sermon on forgiveness, so I feel like the universe was trying to prepare me for this.

I’m conflicted. The emotional abuse website didn’t say anything about forgiveness. It told me to escape when the situation becomes dangerous. It told me to call 911 if my life is ever threatened—which I did not do! But seriously, why would I? The lady on the phone would say, “State your emergency.” And what would I say? “My parents are shouting at me. Please help!”?

Imagine how much more powerful it would be to have a scene in which the child (whose name and gender we still don’t know) actually made this call. Imagine this scene in real story time as an actual story event. It becomes fraught with tension, right? Because then it’s no longer in the character’s imagination but in the character’s actual world. That makes it more powerful.

I will say, though, that the philosophy and tone in these paragraphs does seem age-appropriate. He/she is young, and sounds young. That part of it works. I sense that there’s a real character here, but that character won’t feel fully realized until we see him/her in some actual scenes. The remaining paragraphs follow the same pattern: juvenile thoughts related in a diary. The kid is reaching for something without knowing how to get there, and that could make for interesting reading. But because of the format, it feels flat instead. There’s sympathy for the character, but no real power to the writing.

My heart feels very heavy as I type this. If I forgive my parents and let it go, they will not get better or even know that they were wrong. And I can’t have that. Believe me. They are convinced that screaming at me—threatening me and calling me names—was a reasonable response to “Mommy. Daddy. I didn’t get the scholarship.”

Here is my humble plea to God: I don’t deserve to forget this. They can be forgiven, but the incident cannot be forgotten. Thank you. Amen.

Sometimes, my parents forget that I’m going through this, too. We’re all stressed. We told EVERYONE that I was going to Columbia. Being a Graham Scholar was my only hope. Besides, all the other schools I got into are in Louisiana. Most of them a 20 minute drive away from my family. That will not happen. I’m going far, far away. Columbia needs the deposit by Friday. Though they accepted me, they don’t believe I’ve accepted them unless I send $800. We don’t have it.

I also don’t have any other options. I can’t not go to Columbia. My parents really couldn’t handle that. There’s this little voice that keeps saying: If you die tonight, that’ll show them. Of course, I’d never do anything. But they’re still shouting outside my door. I think I’m going to pray again. This is one of those moments when you just hope that someone’s out there, praying for you, too. 

Do you see the problem? There’s nothing happening here. There’s no action or interaction. It’s all reflection, no scene. It reads like an essay, not like fiction – and I have to point out, this is despite the evident skill at the sentence and paragraph level. This is the danger with a tale told in this format, and it’s a hard one to get around. Even a writer (like this one) who knows how to manipulate sentences and paragraphs will have trouble making a diary read like a novel.

So, I would recommend rethinking the format. Present the scenes in real story time, and try to avoid hyperbole and melodrama, and this troubled teen will bloom into a strong character. 

***

Too much or too little? The process of providing the reader with just the right amount of information takes practice. Does your manuscript answer the who, what, when, where, and why? What other important elements would you include in the first chapter? 

***

 Author Jennifer Fusco joins us on Monday, September 24th.

                                                                                       

Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.

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8 Responses to “A Different Kind of Format Issue – Ask an Editor with Theresa Stevens”

  1. Hi Theresa,

    I have been going through a manuscript I wrote a while ago. Information dumps abound. Too much background about everyone. I’m deleting more than I’m rewriting.

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | September 21, 2012, 6:09 am
  2. Hi, Theresa –

    I can see the need to get this type of information on the page, with the knowledge that what the writer is actually doing is exploring her character. I could see this piece becoming part of her character sketch rather than a scene in the manuscript.

    Thanks for the great reminder – sounds like this writer might be a character-drivien writer like me! :-)

    Kels

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | September 21, 2012, 6:18 am
  3. Morning Theresa!

    Wow. That’s a tough read, but I can totally see it redone the way you said! That would be a heckuva opener to the book – action, danger, dialogue. Yet the author could still add journal entries later, scattered throughout the story..after we knew who the main character is and understand them a bit more.

    Great job Theresa! =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 21, 2012, 6:25 am
  4. I dunno. Kind of worked for me because the one thing it did well was to drag me into the mindset and voice of a character.

    I understand all the points made, and maybe it’s just that I understand the situation very well, being in the middle of getting the third child through college, but the kid came through, loud and clear, with the fears – going or staying too close to home, the family stress, the loss of prestige, the money pressure (though a quick thought was that Columbia does better than this implies as far as financial aid for candidates they want).

    IOW, I wanted to see what happens next.

    This worked as a quick setup, even a prologue, and I would follow along to see what came after this brief sample.

    But I wouldn’t follow a whole novel this way, unless it got somewhere from here.

    My point is that this is storytelling. She (I chose female based on something about the desperation and the self-analysis that didn’t sound male) is telling me where the story starts. There are a whole bunch of problems right up front, and I’m curious how some of them will be solved. Curious enough to give it the courtesy of reading a bit further.

    Thinking back, it is the same kind of reaction I got when I picked up ‘Bridget Jones’ Diary’ at Barnes and Noble many years back, and read the first few pages: enough interest to read quite a bit further.

    Posted by ABE | September 21, 2012, 8:15 am
  5. Yet another terrific post from Theresa. I always love how you “deconstruct” pages and show us why something works or doesn’t.

    Great learning experience. Thanks to the brave author who submitted their work!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 21, 2012, 8:47 am
  6. I know I do this – or have done it, anyway. Hopefully I’m learning, thanks to posts like this one! Thanks very much to the brave writer who submitted it. The premise grabbed me enough that I’d like to read more, even though I’m not a particular fan of YA.

    It helps that your advice is so specific, Theresa. I’m going to refer to this as I work on my revisions. I know some published authors who never revise their books and are able to sell them right off the bat. I think I’m destined to be a multiple revision-type writer. Oh well, self-knowledge is progress, right?

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 21, 2012, 10:37 am
  7. Theresa is traveling today but will respond to comments once she reaches her destination.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 21, 2012, 2:07 pm
  8. After reading this entry, I’m reminded of two books, Bridget Jones’ Diary and Holly’s In Box. The books are entirely written in journal or e-mail format, but the most glaring difference between the books and the above entry is as you stated, the lack of progression.

    As a reader, I’m wondering if the entire book will take place inside this young girl’s head.

    Thanks for another valuable critique and many thanks to our brave RU reader who sent her pages.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 21, 2012, 2:30 pm

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