Sunday, May 14, 2023

Personal Narrative--What You (and Your Book) Are Trying to Say

Now that review copies (ARCs) are being readied and I'm entering the window of pre-publication excitement with my new novel, A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue, I'm studying up on something I never took time for while I was busy writing: the book's narrative and how it intersects with my personal narrative.

Turns out, this element of your story--its message, its meaning--is the way readers most engage with your work.

Sure, an exciting plot is important. Great people to populate your book's stage. But the take-away, the story's impact, is what makes a book truly loved.

This isn't just a question for pre-publishing time, by the way. You may be in the throes of creating your first draft, an exciting and wonderful stage. Or you may be struggling with your structure, via a storyboard or chapter grids.

It takes a lot of work to make a book. Because we’re so occupied at ground level, we writers often don't consider the lofty thoughts of the book’s greater meaning until a publicist or marketing person asks these kinds of questions: what's your book's key message? How does it intersect with your life and beliefs? They have a specific job: to find topics that blossom into articles or essays or interview topics.

Sometimes, we writers get woken up to the meaning of our stories via savvy readers—friends, an agent, an editor, an interviewer. When my first novel, Qualities of Light, was sold to a publisher and I was waiting for it to be produced, I was very new at exploring the book’s greater message. With my nonfiction books, I could more easily say what they were about and how I felt about this. But a novel’s meaning is often couched in plot and character, not shouted from paragraph one. So I remained clueless until after the book’s launch, when a friend got me an interview on NPR, and I learned from the interviewer what the book was really about. She zeroed in on the relationship between the young protagonist, Molly, and her damaged father. This stayed in her mind and heart, fascinated her, birthed all her excellent questions during that interview. Again, this happened when local news ran a story about my novel, and that journalist told me why the book appealed to her: “It's about how a young person can be the instrument to save her parents."

All so true. But looking back, it embarrasses me how stunned I was by this new information. Why don’t we writers know this from the get-go? I believe it’s because we’re too close to the story—we’ve been living and breathing it for years—and we don’t get enough distance to gain a reader’s perspective. Even our writers’ group members or our feedback partners may comment more on the structure or language than the meaning. It’s so incredibly valuable to discern this meaning, though, because it forms the basis for how you will approach your future agent, your publisher, and your readers.

Most valuable, though, is to grasp how the book’s meaning intersects with your own life and beliefs. Again, it’s only looking back that I can see the reason I worked so hard to write about a young person who has the insight and perspective to gift her family in a way that allows it to flourish. I also believe that certain kinds of circumstances, such as the tragedy in Qualities of Light, foster this. In the end, I wanted to write about a young woman of sixteen who is more capable of rescuing her family than either of her parents. Who finds a way to be exiled from them because of the tragedy and also find her way back to them.

So how do you discover your book's message, its narrative?

It takes distance from it, as I said,. It often helps to get feedback from readers or those who know how to ask these kinds of questions. Because I'm usually clueless, I decided to hire marketing guru Dan Blank for three months of exploring my new novel's narrative and how it connects to my own life beliefs. Dan's business is "human-centered marketing," and his approach is all about finding the authentic path to travel with promoting your art. I wasn't surprised when his first assignment for me was to think about my book's key messages. What I wanted to say with this story. And how these messages intersect with my own life.

I also appreciated writer and Substacker Jami Attenberg, author of the "Craft Talk" newsletter, who talks about this narrative in two parts: "the story of your book" and the "story of you." Why you wrote this book, why the book's meaning or message is important to you. Dan asked me to write a list of topics I think my book is about and subtopics that explore it further.

So far, my homework for Dan has yielded some good insights. A Woman's Guide to Search & Rescue is about estranged siblings, two sisters who are both pilots. They are forced to reunite after a tragedy that affects both of them. (Again, the theme of tragedy bringing unexpected gifts.) They end up rescuing each other in unexpected ways. Very much like my first novel, which tells me this is a life theme or belief for me, right? It's something I'm fascinated with: how we help or rescue others and end up saving ourselves. It's also about found family--the community we build away from our origins that often delivers more of what we actually need and repairs wounds we didn't know we had. I never felt I really fit in my family of origin, although I loved them dearly. I moved across country at a young age to find my way and my tribe. Later in life, I found my way back to my origins and appreciated them more.

Connecting this “book narrative” with my personal narrative was hard work this week. It was painful but revealing. I have a deceased older sister whom I'd love to be friends with now, if she were alive. She suffered with terrible addictions and chronic pain, distancing most of the family. I wonder about how we could've rescued each other, as we got older, despite this tragedy, but I'll never know. Her death was a shock and it certainly changed my relationship with my two other siblings. Death in a family often brings a stronger appreciation of the circle that's left.

A third “book narrative” I've landed on explores women and their unique strengths. I wanted to write a story about women pilots. My mother got her license at age 20 and served as a squadron leader in the Women's Air Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II. She always impressed me as a fearless person, able to survive many challenges of poverty, hard work, losing a daughter, and more. Before she died at age 98, she told me the story of the dead-stick landing she was forced to make when her plane engine caught on fire. I'm sure there are more stories I never heard.

What is the internal make-up of a person who can survive all these kinds of catastrophes and still look on life as a gift? That's definitely my own story too, and it's where the book and I intersect.

This week, no matter where you are in the process from early draft to near publication, spend time listing the topics your story covers and think about ways they intersect with your own beliefs about life. It's an exercise of authenticity, I'm learning. It can put you on the edge but also teach you an awful lot about yourself and why you've spent this precious time writing this particular story.

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