Monday, September 17, 2012

Be Mean to Your Characters

I subscribe to a freelancer listserv and every week there's a request for a writer to ghost or "polish" a memoir or a novel about pioneer ancestors or dad's World War II experiences. I reviewed dozens of these manuscripts at my first editing job and by the tenth or maybe the twentieth it was apparent that the stories were all interesting, but much more interesting to the family than to a potential audience of readers.

We had a stack in the slush pile that were carefully typewritten and bound with a nice title page -- "The Johnson-Inglemoor Family History". Maybe it is fascinating to the family to know how great-grandpa and grandma got to Canada or the USA; met, married, had trials and tribulations, and ultimately prospered. Cue the three-generations family reunion photo, newest baby in great-grandma's lap.

But it’s BORING to the rest of us: we've got our own family stories. How is yours different?

The "Als" (see blog post from May 28, 2012) used to call these manuscripts R2R (rags-to-riches), or 40AM (forty-acres-and-a-mule), or IMG (immigrant makes good).

There was only one manuscript among the dozens of R2R, 40AM and IMG manscripts that intrigued the "Als". In Chapter Two the author wrote, "There was a rumor that great-grandpa had a whole 'nother family back in Kentucky..."

The "other family" could have made for an interesting story, but when we asked the author if she could elaborate, she balked. "Oh no, we don't talk about that," she said. "The real story is how great-grandpa came out here and built the mill with his own hands."

That scenario would repeat itself over and over, especially in family memoirs, even when novelized -- a causal mention of a crazy cousin who "caused a lot of trouble" or a grandmother rumored to have been a nun -- whenever the story got interesting, the author would pull back and offer the happy-days story.

The truth is – you have to be awful to your characters; dig for the dirt.

Kurt Vonnegut talks about writing short stories: a-minute-and-a-half eight steps. Step 6: be a sadist -- make awful things happen to your characters in order that the reader see what they are made of.

And Vonnegut talks amusingly about the Shape of Stories. The text of this talk appears in his book Palm Sunday.

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