Refocusing a Narrative

I came across a title of an article today, “The Big Reason Why Agents and Editors Stop Reading,” by Paula Munier, literary agent and content strategist. Ordinarily I would have skipped reading this because my memoir and I are just not agent and/or editor ready. I can’t even say if I will even try to secure an agent but at the very least I hope to look to an editor – eventually. I don’t take my designated reading time lightly as the guilt of spending the time to study ever-changing and fast-moving memoir writing and book publishing worlds to the point when I surrender and plead ignorance never wanes.

But I decided to give this a read anyway. The article was an excerpt from Paula’s book, “Writing with Quiet Hands, posted www.JaneFriedman.com. Her first sentence packed a punch and, for me, it really didn’t have anything to do with an agent or editor. “ . . . the reason I most often stop reading is a lack of narrative thrust,” Paula said. “Narrative thrust?”

It sounded too simple to be a show stopper. But really, it’s the essence of storytelling. Paula goes on to say, “Narrative thrust is the taut building of story, beat by beat, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, using the complexities of plot and character to propel the story forward in a dramatic arc that peaks at the climax. You must write each scene so that it leads logically to the next, as if you were connecting a model train, car by car, presenting story questions as you proceed down the track, pushing the action forward to its inevitable, if unpredictable, ending.

A lack of narrative thrust occurs when one scene does not logically lead to another. This sentence became one of those “aha” moments when I realized I needed to be less concerned about getting the scenes into the story and more concerned about leading one scene into the other, a progression, a momentum.

My first professional memoir critique revealed that my pages contained “many legs” as my pro commented. At first, I didn’t understand what he was referring to. I wondered if it was a good thing, a redeemable quality I desperately tried to find in basically my first draft. As I continued with subsequent rewrites I began to understand when I turned some of the “many legs” into short essays. In my memoir I described my father as a person whom I struggled to really know but I had vivid memories of him and me. I felt I was learning about him when we interacted. So, for example, I would write about those memories of interaction such as when I was a little girl and we ran Saturday errands together in town, or even when there was no connection and I failed to get his attention as when I would sit on the basement steps unnoticed and listen to him playing his drums to jazz music coming from the record player. I developed a short essay using my memories of us to illustrate my challenges in getting to know my father.

I placed the scenes from these essays in subsequent rewrites and realized there was a patchwork of writing. My scenes were strung along, lacking transitions and ultimately a compelling narrative.

I continued with my rewrites and have paid close attention to my newly learned concept of “narrative thrust” where I refocused on my scenes, their transitions and moving my story along. I have also learned to not be so quick to dismiss an article or a blog post or even a newsletter from an editor as they can be effective learning tools I can use to better my craft.

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