I’ve written and rewritten Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up multiple times, playing around with structure and voice to the point where I sometimes think I’m my protagonist Andrew Brown. Then again, in the early drafts of the book, I might have been.
In tearing down the structure and building it back up, I thought I came up with a creative way of telling a story, one that I hadn’t seen before – using offsetting chapters to tell a disjointed story where the odd-numbered chapters recount a narrative in the present while the even-numbered chapters provide character background in the present past. Every even-numbered chapter would end with the beginning of the odd-numbered chapter, bringing the audience back into the present after gaining more insight into a particular character. Pretty creative, right?
I thought so, too. That is until I got feedback from an agent I was really interested in working with. In a very polite, honest email, she extolled some positives of the manuscript I sent her; then, she hit me with the honest truth I’ve been waiting to hear for years:
Unfortunately, as the story unfolded, I found myself growing disinterested. I think this is largely because I found the narrative to be quite confusing. With the frequent shifts between past and present, I wasn’t always clear on what exactly was happening, and when. I also didn’t feel a strong sense of place, which might have helped to ground the story in the present. And I found that the frequent use of metaphor only complicated this confusion further.
I read this on the way home after another girls basketball team loss (I’m the coach, go figure, and the girls actually earned the first girls basketball victory in our school’s history) and immediately wanted to launch myself out of the car. I wasn’t mad at the agent; I was mad at myself for a number of reasons:
- I had failed to properly edit the draft, making silly grammatical and structural mistakes.
- I had rushed in composing it after spending the summer deconstructing it and putting it back together.
- I had not given it to someone for feedback prior to sending it out.
Lesson learned and an agent I really, REALLY wanted to work with lost in the process. However, in failing, I realized I had someone who was eager to read my manuscript and give me critiques. And it was someone I had been working with for the past six months.
Foday Samateh is a local author who works in New Rochelle, NY. He is a thoroughly versed Shakespearian who wrote a historical fiction novel based on coupe in West Africa’s Gambia Peninsula. We have gone through over 300 pages of his novel, picking apart the figurative language, the grammar, the dialogue, and the focus of the story itself. It was a project my boss asked me to do as a favor for him, one I begrudgingly accepted at first when he handed me this guy’s manuscript and I speed-read the first 150 pages of it on the john a couple hours before I met the man for the first time.
And I think he’s changing my life.
Why? Well, it took a fresh set of eyes, someone whom I’ve grown comfortable with discussing and editing literature with to convince me that the story, which takes place predominantly in Italy, needs to start in Italy, not on Long Island. It makes sense: the prologue establishes suspense that needs to be validated immediately, not three chapters after the fact. The reader will not wait that long for the story, and they shouldn’t have to.
As the writer, it’s my job to keep them interested and engaged; when that stops happening, I’ve failed. So, I went back to the beginning, outlining a more fluid narrative that employs a wholly present tense narrative with meaningful flashbacks to the past a la The Sun Also Rises.
And the results have been promising. In one month, I’ve reedited 115 pages (10 chapters worth) and expect to send out a new round of complete and edited manuscripts to agents by the end of March. As much as my new friend Foday thinks he owes me for helping him out, he’s more than recompensed me.
The point here is that, as self-conscious as we are about our art, we need the opinions of others to better ourselves. Sure, we want to tackle our issues and deal with them ourselves; however, do not discount the value of feedback from an objective source. The key, though, is finding someone who is objective because it will not do you any good if you have a reader who “Tell[s] all the truth but tell[s] it slant” as Emily Dickinson wrote. You want someone who isn’t afraid to tell you something doesn’t make sense or you’re overdoing it with your flowery figurative language or you’re neglecting a character or you’re losing sight of the narrative arc. As writers, we need this. And I found him in Foday.
His story, though, will be told next Monday (3/9) since it’s a telling one of how the ignorant and entitled in America view those who work seemingly menial jobs. I was also one of those people before I met him.
In the meantime, check back Tuesday (3/3) for a new teaser for Knowing When You’re Too Young to Grow Up.