Sample Reading Report: A Memoir
- September 28, xxxx
- Finding your Voice
WHAT WORKS: In the report on the first section of the book that I did back in June, I mentioned that you weren’t giving readers enough of the background of your life. I think that comment shows the danger of doing a report on a partial manuscript, because now that I’ve seen the whole thing in context, you actually do an excellent job of weaving the details of your past life — of your first marriage and your first encounter with Brother Andrew, your work history with Jimmy (I loved the description of the time in the Qumran caves), your troubled relationship with your mother — into the story of your growing vocal ability. By revealing the shape of your earlier life as the singing lessons progress, you slowly build up the significance of what your readers are seeing, which is an excellent way to draw them into the story.
You’ve also managed to avoid many of the drawbacks and pitfalls of the self-help memoir genre. Your story is intensely personal, and you tell it very simply and humbly, without descending to preachiness, condescension, or judgment. (Somehow, discovering the secrets of the universe does tend to turn some writers into know-it-alls.) By simply presenting your life, openly and honestly, you are far more likely to help your readers find their own way than someone who tells them what to do. They learn that selflessness can be crippling as well as virtuous because they watch your reaction when your sister asks why you think selfishness is a bad thing. They learn the importance of parenting the inner child when they see you discover the little girl who always felt like she didn’t belong. Your story is an effective lesson in living.
It’s also touching just as a story. Your descriptions of the deaths of both your father and of Brother Andrew are wonderful and balance against one another nicely. You do a beautiful job pacing your developing understanding of your own past, revealing the truths you uncover quickly enough to keep readers interested and slowly enough for them to absorb them. Also, all the strengths I saw in the partial manuscript are still here and carry through to the end. It’s still nicely ironic that Blake the Self-Help Guru could be so oblivious to your needs, and it was satisfying when you were able to walk out on him. In short, you’ve done an excellent job.
WHAT NEEDS WORK:
CHARACTER: Probably your largest remaining problem is that we’re not seeing enough of some of your characters. Jason, for instance, is a skilled presence as far as shaping your voice and nudging your psyche, and I like his wit and gentleness. But even by the end of your time together, I still felt like we knew nearly nothing about him. Actually, we don’t really know your sister too well, either, and even Grace at the gym, though a presence at the beginning, isn’t fully fleshed out.
STYLE: Much of your problem with your characters seems to lie with your apparent aversion to physical description. Occasionally you do bring a location or person to life, as with the small gym in the strip mall or the retreat house where you and Andrew spend the weekend. But for the most part, your locations are pretty anonymous, and that reflects on your characters. I feel like we don’t know Jason very well because, despite all the time you spend in his studio, I don’t know how large it is, or how it’s furnished or whether he works from a Casio keyboard or a 6’ grand. You may have mentioned these details once at some point, but because you never bring them up again, they never really made an impression. Similarly, we never see the tchotchkes on Grace’s desk or spend time in your sister’s immaculate kitchen. It’s as if your characters don’t really inhabit the places where they are.
When you asked me to reserve a slot for you, you wanted to know if it was time to begin line-editing. I think it is. Your plot arc and pace — two of the main reasons to do a rewrite before the line-editing begins — don’t need any additional work, and you don’t need to add scenes. And it probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear that your stylistic problems, like your vocal problems, are most easily corrected with professional coaching.
When doing a full manuscript, I prefer to line-edit fifty pages at a time. I would edit the first fifty and send them to you. You would then input my changes (keeping only the ones you like, of course) and edit pages 51-100 yourself, trying to do what I did. You’d send me a clean copy, I’d edit 51-100, send them back, then you would edit 101-150. And so we would proceed, with you working fifty pages ahead of me throughout the book. I’ve found this back-and-forth approach, where you get to experiment with your style and receive feedback, to be an excellent teaching tool, helping you to hone your writing skills in ways you can apply to all your writing. I’d estimate the cost of the entire manuscript at $xxxxxx, with half payable up front and the remainder to be invoiced and paid as we go.
The only question is whether or not you should rewrite the first fifty pages so as to introduce more physical detail before I begin the line-editing. If you feel inspired to give it a try, by all means do it. If you feel you’d like some coaching first, I could go through the first fifty pages, highlighting where more detail is needed in addition to the other editing. Also, I’ve again included a sample page of line-editing using Word’s Track Changes feature.
So let me know if you’d like to go ahead. Also, let me know if you’d like me to work with a pencil on page or electronically, with Track Changes. And as always, if you have any questions on this report, please feel free to ask.