See, everything I know I learned from my dad,
He learned it all from his/
And his dad just happened to be
Wrong about everything!
–Dan Bern, “Hannibal”
Not long ago I finished reading a memoir and had to restrain myself from throwing it across the room. Fortunately I was being paid to read it; part of my living comes from reviewing books, and a part of that part is dedicated to self-published work. This memoir was drawn from that pile, and had many strikes against it—an intolerably snotty narrator, numerous typos that made simply getting through it a slog, and an obscenely high page count. If I was going to complain about the quality, at least it wouldn’t be followed with, “And the portions were so small!” This was a doorstop.
The central problem with this book was a trait that’s sadly common to many self-published books: A simple lack of curiosity on the part of the author about her own life. Telling your own story isn’t best achieved by knowing all the answers when you sit down to write; the most engaging work comes from authors who aren’t afraid to wonder, even if the answers that come don’t flatter them.
The open floodgates in the world of self-published books mean a lot of people show up with manuscripts that aren’t ready for prime time. It’s a delightfully global village, but authors who write in English without basic fluency or a willingness to pay for translation and editing hurt their cause by publishing work that’s simply impossible to understand, much less rank for consumers. This is slowly improving as authors who sell no copies begin the hard task of asking why and making the necessary adjustments. Many have good stories to tell and merely need technical assistance to ensure the reader can pick up what they’re laying down, but the movement as a whole is still undermined by those who equate typing with authorship.
Rather than unfairly piling on any one author, here are a few broad examples drawn from recent reviews. Consider it a field guide to avoidable catastrophe.
We begin with The Axe-Grinder. Lots of people grow up hating their mothers. It’s a very sad thing, and you’re surely entitled to vent your spleen about it as an adult with a laptop. But! In self-published memoirs, the accusatory finger is often wielded with such overpowering force it sinks the story around it. A woman furious at her family claims (repeatedly, and in the middle of stories about other things) that her sister exacerbated their mother’s dementia by cooking for her, since measuring and preparing food would have engaged the woman’s mind. A man who wrote about the many cats he’d cared for takes time out to gripe about his mother for not giving him money for a vacation, when the comfortable living he brags about is spent on…well, not spaying and neutering, that’s for sure (he had roughly a jillion cats). The biological daughter of parents who fostered several children was entirely right to call out both the parents and foster siblings for instances of abuse and neglect, but fails to notice that merely listing these sad occurrences does not offer the reader a story to engage with.
While it may seem impossible in the heat of a first draft to take time out and put yourself in your tyrannical mother’s shoes, take heart! You’re not supposed to! However, you are also not supposed to publish your first draft. And when it comes to going deeper, many authors succeed and still get their anger out. A recent self-pub memoir that crossed my desk focused on an abusive mother who, once her daughter had reached puberty, down-shifted from physical beatings to emotional torment so severe the girl wet the bed into adulthood. No doubt about it, she had a legitimate score to settle. But in so doing, she continued to speculate about why her mother turned out this way, and noted the close relationship she was able to maintain with her father and grandparents. The mere willingness to allow that her monstrous mother might be a human being shows a depth of consideration on the author’s part that makes her easy to sympathize with, and the book was gripping as a result.
Setting down a weapon is never easy, especially when that weapon is a pen. It feels so powerful to be the one telling the story your way, without interruption from your stupid family who never thought you had it in you. I’d encourage anyone with that much energy to write their heart out as freely and often as possible; the catharsis can be therapeutic, and telling your truth is always, always a valid pursuit. It’s just that this is the stuff of journals, not literature. If you want to publish your story, take all your notebooks and stash them in a drawer for five years, then come back to it. Still want to publish? OK, you are ready to begin what will probably be the most grueling series of revisions you ever undertake. And you owe it to the people you write about to talk to them and consider their perspective, too, even if you disagree with it. Your story is not your own at the end of the day. It happened in a world with the rest of us in it.
This is a rambling route to a point many would-be authors lose sight of, given the ease with which books can be published: Good writing takes time. It’s not at all uncommon to find a first-person comment in a self-published memoir like, “Wow, I didn’t know it would be so hard to write a book! I started on Monday and it’s already Thursday!” Don’t be one of these people. Care enough to put the time in, and you will naturally begin to incorporate the perspective of others while still having your say. It’s just that now it will more likely be something we want to read.
Moving on, we find the Kitchen Sink-ers. It may not seem to reflect a lack of curiosity, but many self-publishers, both memoir and fiction writers, suffer a defect of perception that I occasionally fall victim to myself. It may be driven by a desire to maintain word count, or a simple unwillingness to take up the scalpel, but these scribes put every thought in their heads on the page and refuse to cut so much as a comma. The resulting prose is, at best, a slurry of verbal diarrhea that leads to mental constipation, an IBS of the mind.
These are stories where a protagonist wakes up, turns over, rolls to an upright position at the edge of the bed, leans forward, stands, then—lifting first his left foot and then his right—walks to the bathroom (in the LL Bean slippers with the blackwatch plaid lining he got on his fifth wedding anniversary) to pee. You can imagine how long it takes to get breakfast into a person so utterly fascinating, what with waiting for each egg to be laid and the wheat to grow into eventual toast. In fiction this is often comical in its sheer badness, but in nonfiction it becomes problematic in the extreme.
Think about a popular memoir you enjoyed. There’s usually a flow to the story that draws you in, and whether the author talks to the reader like a friend or simply presents their tale with little preamble, they offer the details crucial to the story without a lot of clutter or equivocation. During those in-between moments, they are silently gliding toward the next plot point on moving walkways, buying groceries, showering, maybe paying bills, none of which we need to read about. Self-pubs often feel the need to include everything they did as if drawing the details from a journal (which many of them are openly doing), and when memory fails making up something like, “We probably had hash browns and eggs for breakfast, then went to the mall for a while since it was the weekend.” This happens so often it has become a trope of the field. I’ve begun to worry that one more speculative memory of an incident that nobody cares about will push me over the edge. Is it possible to give out negative stars? Can I give a book a black hole?
Again, the fix is not that difficult. Fiction writers: First of all, read better fiction, even if it’s just for a little while, and read closely. Find a few passages where a character manages to move through her day organically without our having to count how many times she chews each bite of food. Copy those passages out. Literally copy them by hand. Now refer to them when you’ve got a character who’s stuck. Don’t steal, but pay attention to what we need to know and what we can live without, and err on the side of brevity. If you somehow use a Mrs. Field’s cookie to intercept a terrorist threat, this is relevant and worthy of inclusion. If you are at the mall on a less eventful day, don’t list all the stores you pass; the mere word “mall” is sufficient for us to visualize the scene. Take the escalator to the food court and order your hot dog on a stick, just before whatever is going to happen surprises us all. I’m rooting for you.
Nonfiction authors, you have it even easier. Here’s your metric: If you don’t remember what happened, it doesn’t matter. Don’t include it. I’m serious. “We probably had a roast chicken,” is not useful to a reader. It makes you sound like a ninny, as if you don’t remember your own life and, even worse, don’t seem to care about it. A memorable meal is worth recounting—the cut glass vase holding four peonies, votive candles in Mason jars on the sideboard casting a subtle glow, and you, across from the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with, tucking into a shared can of Heinz Vegetarian Beans on toast. The 29 other dinners that month can probably be left aside. This one has sufficient narrative power to carry the day.
This would not be a righteous roundup without including The Fridge Magneteers. Just as the Kitchen Sinkers bog down a story with a lot of pointless details, there are writers who junk up a book with a profusion of anecdotes, quotes, and other pithy irrelevancies. It’s a bit like opening Facebook and finding the same photo or meme several times in your news feed—what might be amusing at first quickly becomes annoying, just more lard clogging up your day.
Inspirational AA quotes. Life lessons from amazing nonagenarians. Mnemonic devices for dieters. The endless hilarity that is enjoying coffee or wine, or deriding those who enjoy them. All these things, and more Wikipedia entries than you’d believe, end up boosting the page count of the books I’m asked to read. At this point even a well-chosen epigraph is irritating (though I’ll always forgive those) because so many of these books reflect a lazy approach to language, story, and content. Books aren’t merely a page count; they should exist for a reason, and spackling a holey story together with serenity prayers and random thoughts pulled from the public domain shows a striking lack of originality or interest.
While the Axe-Grinders are the hardest books for me to read (I so often want to throw the victim under the bus, then feel guilty about it), the Fridge Magneteers are the biggest affront to reading and writing, since in most cases a book filled up with quotes from others is a book that can’t stand on its own. My advice to these folks is pick a lane: If you want to compile a gazetteer or miscellany, by all means proceed. Give it a theme, bring in a skilled designer so it’s pleasing to browse through, and chances are I’d buy it and love it. But if your reliance on the anecdotes of others in any way points to your own story being incomplete, don’t publish yet! Sit with your work and let it ferment a bit. Commit to revising and polishing, to the actual craft of writing, and trust your originality to come forth when called. We’ll be here for your wild truths and wilder imaginings, just maybe spare us from hanging out all day while you do laundry on the page.
It’s somewhere between funny and tragic that the writer’s guidelines from one of my review jobs contain the following passage: “I find it such a wonderful facet of human nature that reviewers so often try to shield authors from hurt by avoiding being direct about the problems in a book. It speaks to the good in all of us.” While I generally have the opposite problem, beginning with the premise, “This sucks,” and trying to rephrase it kindly, I did just ask an editor to double-check my work for snark about a (terrible) book I suspected was written by someone with a serious learning disability.
It’s a noteworthy accomplishment for anyone to set out to write a book and finish it, but if a review is supposed to advise both the general public and those in charge of library acquisitions, you still need to find a compassionate way to shut it down if the result is unreadable.
A side effect of reading so much genuinely undercooked writing is the gratitude I feel now for a well-told story. I’ve always loved reading, but good work makes me want to stand and cheer now that it’s unavoidably clear how much effort goes into it, and how many people are willing to try and pass off sawdust for soul food. I trip over my feet in the rush to credit a well-turned phrase anymore. They’re tiny miracles, shooting stars on the page.
Writing well is a little like the paradox of faith. To believe requires you to hold the thought that your belief might not be correct or reciprocated, but that’s still the star you steer by, even knowing it may lead you into rough seas. It’s unnerving and dynamic. Your life story is, and all your stories are, the same way. Knowing it all before you lift a pen effectively drains the life from your material. Let it roam a bit, maybe pull away from you, lead you somewhere unexpected.
If your dad was a rat bastard, show us a good day among the bad and the betrayal when he falls off the wagon again will be that much harder to take. You were a model student, a perfect child, employee of the month but nobody cared?, What lurked under all those perfectly smoothed surfaces? Give us a bad hair day, that one time you fought back, some contrast, some texture. You may think you have the full story, but you can never know how other people saw things; the confidence it takes to tell a story well is the same confidence that lets you face that doubt and continue writing.
All of these things boil down to remaining curious about your life and the ideas you have about it. Never underestimate the richness to be mined from the possibility that you might be wrong and simply following that discovery where it leads.