Sentences that fill me with dread, part 1
“I’m retired now, and thought I’d try to write a book about my experiences.”
This sentence might seem perfectly innocent. And anyone who has spent much time with me knows I’m always encouraging people to draw, write, sing, play instruments, and so on. I think everyone should try to make art every now and then.
But the above sentence fills me with dread when I hear it (and you may be surprised how many times I have heard that, or a close variation) in the context of someone just learning for the first time that I’m a writer (and editor and publisher). Because in that circumstance, it inevitably leads to them wanting me write their book for them.
They may not put it that way. They usually don’t believe that’s what they’re asking. They just want some advice, they say. They want someone to bounce some ideas off of, they say.
When I give them advice, they don’t like it. “First, you need to write. Don’t talk to people about your idea, sit down and start writing. Don’t know where to start? Here are some excellent books on writing. Here are my recommendations for software to use for the actual writing. Go to my writing web site (sansfigleaf.com), go to the Essays section, and click on the Writing tag. You’ll find over 60 essays I’ve already written on the writing process.”
My favorites are the ones who react to the list of books or the essays with, “I don’t have time to read all of that!” I’m only using the word “favorite” in that sentence half sarcastically. If they are that upfront with their unwillingness to learn on their own, they’re easy to deal with. “If you aren’t willing to read something that can help you achieve your dream, what makes you think anyone would want to read what you’re going to write?”
For a long time, the next most common objection was, “Why do I have to learn how to use a word processor? If my story’s good, won’t the publisher help me with that?” Trying to make them understand just how much time and expense is involved in transcribing a novel length story is always fun. Sometimes I can just go with a variant of the book answer: “If you think it’s too much trouble to learn how to do it, why do you think other people would be willing to do it for you for free?”
This usually leads to me having to explain that books which simply break even are the exception, and books that make large profits for all involved are rarer still. And no one can be certain which books will or will not take off in advance. No matter how awesome your story is, getting a lot of people to just look at it is an expensive undertaking. No one is going to take that chance on you if you make it even more expensive for them than other writers who submit completed stories in proper manuscript format.
There’s a special subset of these who will come rightout and say, “How about I tell you the stories, and you write them up for me? I’ll give you a portion of the proceeds!”
Computers have been ubiquitous in the American workplace for long enough now that fewer would-be memoirists balk at using them. But I expect a rise in the complimentary problem. “Here, let me show you what I’ve written so far!” And they send me a file that consists of a few hundreds words of babble. Sometimes it’s perfectly spelled babble, but it doesn’t make sense. Don’t get me wrong. I am the king of typos. If there is a circle in hell reserved for people who make too many typos, that’s where my soul is heading to in the afterlife. I’m not talking about typos. I’m talking about fragments that don’t quite make a sentence; sentences that don’t connect to each other; and either no paragraph breaks at all, or paragraph breaks that make no sense.
Don’t get me started on the pronoun problems. If I can find a few sentences that make sense to someone who doesn’t already know the people involved, the industry and its conventions, and so on, at all, then there will be a whole slew of he’s, she’s, him’s, and her’s with no way to be certain which he is which person.
No matter how they react to the other questions, if I keep having contact with them, they will ask for advice. However, in the middle of whatever advice I give, they will interrupt because I’m not giving them what they want. They want me to tell them some magic words which will make the whole thing just happen. Or they will try to recite one of their experiences to get me to tell them what part of the book it should go in.
The ultimate problem is that the person most likely to say, “I should write a book about my experiences” doesn’t understand books. A book, even a memoir, is not just a collection of interesting anecdotes. To be a book, there needs to be an overall narrative, something that shapes and unifies the whole thing; some sort of logical flow of one part into the next. If you’re going for a collection of barely related essays, something such as Sarah Vowel or a David Sedaris might write, each chapter or essay or whatever you call it has to have some sense of narrative completeness to it, with a theme that contributes to understanding the other sections.
Your anecdotes may be hilarious when told in person in small doses, but writing is a different language than speaking. An essay is not the same thing as an amusing anecdote. A book is more than just a collection of words. Stringing a few stories together isn’t writing a book.
There’s an old cliché that the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction must make sense. It doesn’t just apply to fiction. All writing, even writing about bizarre coincidences and strange behavior, has to make some kind of sense to the reader. A writer’s job is not simply to transcribe what happened. A writer’s job is to find that meaning, and convey it to the reader in such a way that they don’t notice that the writer is imposing a meaning on the events. A writer’s job is to fool you into thinking that the meaning he has carefully constructed is simply a fascinating experience you are having.
That isn’t something you can learn in a single evening over cocktails.