Early on as a book editor, I worked on a manuscript assessment of a talented writer’s memoir. His draft was frank, stark, and funny, and I told him so in my editorial letter. I complimented his moving, sometimes poetic passages and his ability to be impassioned and raucous in his writing style while remaining vulnerable enough not to alienate his (future) readers. The stories he chose to share from his life were harrowing, simple, poignant, and ultimately, redemptive. All the ingredients were there for a memoir capable of pulling the reader’s heart into their throat, to make them think, feel, ponder. I told him all these wonderful things, then tossed him a whammy: “Your writing is beautiful, your stories emotive. But what the hell is this book about?”
As I’ve transitioned into book coaching, this question still seems to stymie my clients. Fiction writers tell me, “Duh, it’s about taking down the Russian Mafia while chasing a demon through the seven levels of hell—it’s all right there.” Memoirists say, “Uh, hello? Wife got cancer and died? Grief? Loss? Duh? It’s all right there, on the page.” Yes, yes, it is on the page, I suppose . . .
. . . but not really.
In the case of the fiction writer, what I’m wondering is why this specific protagonist is determined to take down the Mafia. Why does she think it’s up to her? Why is she the person who needs to chase demons and have side adventures in hell? What is she really chasing? I mean, look at your own life. Everything you’re doing now is a culmination of a long line of decisions you made leading up to this point. The same is true for your MC. She has a reason; what is it? The reason why I might end up confronting the Mafia will most likely be vastly different from why/how your MC is determined to take them down. The more you can pinpoint that difference and give it nuance, the more you can start to see how your book is not just about taking down the Mafia and surviving hell but the story of how the need for revenge will often make a person’s life much, much worse.
With the memoirist, I’m wondering, why are you telling me this specific story? Why is this the story you want to share with the world? Why does it stick with you so? Why do you think it’s a tale I need to hear? A memoir without an argument (what is it about?) is really more like a journal or a collection of anecdotes. They can be beautifully written, compelling, funny, poignant, heart-breaking anecdotes, or sizzling, confessional, meticulous capturing-of-time diary entries, but I’m telling you, the more you can define your why and look at the stories you select from your life through the lens of what is it about? the more satisfying your memoir will be for the reader. Yes, the reader is an important component to consider!
It’s easier to see the importance of how what it’s about can make or break a nonfiction book. For years my husband wanted to write a book about ska. He researched and collected interviews—he was incredibly thorough with collecting the information, in fact. But every time he tried to write the book, he’d balk. Suddenly, other tasks he’d been putting off became important to tackle immediately. He drowned himself in freelance writing just to avoid writing the damn book. The problem was scope. I mean, how was he supposed to be responsible for the entirety of ska? He had all this solid, interesting information but nothing to say about any of it.
It came to him one day on one of our long walks along the American River: he wanted to defend ska, validate all the band nerds who got to play horns really fast, squash all the ska-shame being pedaled out by all the music snobs, and also educate music lovers on where this genre actually originated (Answer: Jamaica. That’s right. Ska is more than that cheesy blip you remember from the mid-’90s! I know this because as my husband’s editor, I had to read his damn book So. Many. Times.). Once he knew what his book was about, he knocked out an outline of every chapter within days and a book proposal within weeks. Of course, writing the thing still took forever, but he lucked out—the argument of his book is right there in the title: In Defense of Ska.
So, I’m just saying. Knowing what your book is about, really pinpointing a specific argument or point, can be a huge help. And just like the talented author I worked with a few years ago, it can be the difference between a good book and a great book.
Thanks for reading!