Writers can never get too much advice from editors about how to improve their writing. And even editors can learn from other editors. That’s why I asked yet another editor to join me in writing a blog for Write Nonfiction in November.
Teresa Leyung Ryan and I move in similar circles, and many of my friends and associates rave about her work. I attended a class Teresa co-taught at the San Francisco Writers Conference two years ago (actually I repeated the class again last year) on how to pitch to agents, and that year I won the pitch contest at that very same writing conference using information I learned from her. (I have to admit the pitch I made was for a novel…That was the year I entered and won NaNoWriMo.)
Most of the people I know, however, offer testimonials about her manuscript consulting services, so I asked her to write a blog post about creating compelling writing. She did this by providing a view through her eyes – an editor’s eyes. Additionally, she has used several memoirs as examples, making this post a perfect prelude to tomorrows post on writing in that genre.
How to Look at Your Manuscript with an Editor’s Lens
By Teresa LeYung Ryan
Manuscript Consultant and Career Coach
Since writing a story with the intent to engage the reader is so much like meeting a stranger and wanting him/her to be interested in you, I will focus on how to make the first quarter of your story a compelling read.
I love working with diligent writers who want to transform their manuscripts into page-turners. However, there are things you can do before you give your work to an editor. Let me show you how you can help yourself.
As an editor, the four biggest mistakes I encounter are manuscripts that are weak in these elements:
- Planting hook(s) or story-question(s);
- Grounding the reader with the three Ws (Who? When? Where?);
- Showing (not telling) what the protagonist wants;
- Paying attention to language and rules
Let’s learn from the pros.
Planting Hook or Story-Question:
In The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts, Maxine Hong Kingston hooks us with the first line: “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you…” Then, Ms. Kingston transitions into her story with: “Whenever she had to warn us about life, my mother told stories that ran like this one . . .”
Grounding the Reader with the Three Ws:
In Woven of Water, while the story timeline spans from 1957 to 2005, Californian author Luisa Adams brilliantly shows us who she was as a girl (not with a year-by-year narrative, but with a single exquisite chapter). Because she grounded us with “who, when, where,” we eagerly follow as she takes us into her enchanted world of a “cottage in the forest.”
Showing What the Protagonist Wants:
In The Other Mother, young Carol Schaefer wants to ask questions: “Was there any way to keep my baby? Was there anyone who would help me find a way to do that?”
Paying Attention to Language and Rules:
Read the first five pages of Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and you will see how this wordsmith plays with language and rules. (You can “bend” the rules to create flow, but you must not ignore them.)
Sentences Deserve Your Attention:
Nina Amir’s post on her blog http://writenonfictioninnovember.wordpress.com/2007/11/ is a must-read.
Remember Groucho Marx’s line “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas…”? That sentence got a lot of laughs. But, what if you didn’t want to be funny (ambiguous in this case)?
How would you rewrite these poorly constructed sentences?
- He likes to fish near the Farallon Islands and they jump when they’re hungry at dawn or dusk.
- She insists on knowing when I come home and leave, not to be nosy, but for safety reasons.
- Being cautious as not to step on the dog’s tail, the children tip-toed away from him while sleeping.
- My husband still in bed snoring, I have always enjoyed rising before dawn and I eat my toast and drink my green tea on the terrace.
To improve your sentence structure and other skills, I recommend these books:
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
- Woe is I: Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English by Patricia T. O’Conner
- In all four stories (The Woman Warrior, Woven of Water, The Other Mother, Angela’s Ashes), the authors present memorable experiences by employing authentic details, unusual story-worlds though real, and poetic language. You want to do the same for your story.
- Also, these stories have another vital component-all four plotlines have what Martha Alderson, author of Blockbuster Plots, Pure and Simple, calls “Cause and Effect” linked scenes. Another must-read blog: http://plotwhisperer.blogspot.com/search?q=first+quarter
- When you’re writing non-fiction and do not have the luxury of rearranging the sequence of events to create a page-turning plotline, you can engage the reader by using concise expositions to leap over blocks of time in order to focus on the core themes and fast-forward the story. A helpful website: http://www.memoriesandmemoirs.com
- You the author must show the reader what the protagonist wants, even if the protagonist doesn’t know at first.
- We don’t have to “like” a protagonist, but, we do need to connect with him/her on an emotional level.
In the fiercely competitive arena of the publishing world, how does one stand out in a crowd? Building relationships is one key to success in this business. Another key is to know how to translate the themes from your life to your writing and articulate those themes as community concerns. I want to see all hardworking writers realize their dreams. My best wishes to you!
About Teresa LeYung Ryan
Manuscript Consultant and Career Coach Teresa LeYung Ryan, author of Love Made of Heart, helps clients identify themes and polish their manuscripts, market themselves to agents and publishers, and map out their careers. She specializes in creative non-fiction, memoirs, women’s fiction, and fiction for children and young adults. She is the Literacy Liaison for Women’s National Book Association–SF Chapter, Group Mentoring Co-Chair at California Writers Club–SF Peninsula Branch and Past President at California Writers Club–SF Peninsula Branch. Additionally, Teresa uses her mother-daughter story, Love Made of Heart, to advocate compassion for mental illness and to help survivors of family violence find their own voices. The book is: archived at the San Francisco History Center; recommended by the California School Library Association; recommended by the California Reading Association; and used in Sociology classes and Advanced Composition English-as-a-Second-Language classes.