3rd SR Crapometer #21

Dear Miss Snark,

Two years ago I was hitting my stride in a brave new world called co-parenting and enjoying every-other weekend without kids or dogs. Then my ex-husband died suddenly. I found myself with grieving children, unconventional extended family, an intimate relationship with probate court, but no time for internet dating.

Over the years I have lost much, but have finally once again found peace of mind.

I respectfully submit the first 650 words of The Maybe Wife, my mom-lit-with-smarts-and-heart memoir that I believe will resonate through the suburbs and carpool lines.

Thank you for your time,

The Maybe Wife
My childhood was compact. We lived in a row house -- a narrow existence. And it was safe; like our one-way street with cars parked on both sides that I crossed by myself when I was six. It was like every other street in my city neighborhood, a middle-class pattern of attached dwellings and lives. I knew nothing of foreign lands called suburbia and rural routes were only traveled while watching The Waltons.

Academically I knew that other places existed, but they were merely vacations spots limited to Northeastern cities within driving distance. I never contemplated lives being anywhere else. The world was where I was. I did not think outside my own city limits.

I always wondered, though; how the building we called the Sears Tower was the tallest building in the world. It was eleven stories high and it stood next to our local Sears store. It was my childhood curiosity, but I said nothing in fear of appearing limited. I'm glad I didn't know then that I was.

But this petite world of mine was always filled to capacity with family and friends and familiar opportunities. It lacked nothing, and until college I looked no further than the bus stop for anything I ever wanted. Even then I didn't look too far. I was so single-city-minded that I lived at home and went to school thirty minutes from where I was raised.

In my married motherhood, as in my childhood, sameness had its virtues. I strove to remain true to the blueprints that had mapped out my future. It was a definitive plan of how things would be one day. We would live in a big house, and we'd already chosen the Stickley furniture for the living room. We drove around looking for the perfect two-story attached to the right-styled three-car garage. Our wardrobes would be extensive and up-to-date, although not too trendy. We fashioned ourselves the couple -- the family -- that everyone knew and liked; the ones who had come so far, worked so hard, and earned so much. It took a certain amount of confidence to pursue these dreams for so long. Early on I grasped and embraced the fact that I cheered from the sidelines and kept the home fires burning while the dream was being built on the field, according to plan.

We started drawing up these plans not long after we met as college freshmen on a long ago and far away cold January night. Charlie was a serious pre-med student, studying biology. I was the friend of a friend, studying English. I remember the first time I saw him, sitting on that dorm bed, against the wall. I flirted simply; by leaning very intentionally on the door jam. Surrounded by chattering sorority sisters, I didn't hear a word they said. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He was clean-shaven, a little preppy, and nonchalant. Very collegiate, blonde and suburban, unlike the rough-cut urban boyfriends of my short but colorful social past who built their own cars and wore Wallabies and flannel shirts. I had big hair, frosted make-up and tight jeans. I'm sure for both of us, the dichotomy fanned the flame.

It wasn't until five months later when we'd meet again on our first, somewhat arranged date. Embarrassed at first by being seen with someone in an argyle sweater and boat shoes, I was, however, intrigued by a car with a sunroof. I found out much later that he was equally ill at ease with my choice of wearing dungarees. It certainly goes to reason then, that through this seemingly social incompatibility our fate was sealed over a salad bar dinner in University City and underage drinking at a college pub. We never dated anyone else.

This is the classic example of query disconnect.
You tell me your husband died, and you've gotten familiar with probate court, and a weird extended family. I'm thinking "bummer, but who knows..this could be compelling".

Then you start out with backstory. Yadda Yadda and more yadda.

You all make me crazy when you do this cause there is so much crapola on my desk on any given day, when I see a query letter that gives me hope..and you follow it up with THIS..I just want to reach through the SASE and clobber you.

Sometimes I'll say this in a rejection letter and ask you to get your damn act together but mostly I say "pass".


Anonymous said...

I'll echo Miss Snark's disappointment, the query did pique my interest, and I see definite talent in the writing itself, but I started to skim on paragraph four of the excerpt. What's the story? The lovely voice of the writing will only sustain me so far, and then I start to wonder if anything is ever going to happen.

Find the start of the story, and then start there. Good luck; I really did enjoy your writing.

Sam said...

Oh yes - write the story like the query letter - it moved fast and was entertaining and fun. Good luck! Love the idea!

anonymous also said...

Nice writing, nice details, but not much happening. Your query letter was more interesting as far as events.

JJ said...

Boy, if there's a theme to the Crapometer so far, it's "make something happen sooner!!" It's called "in media res" (if I've got the Latin spelling right) -- start in the middle of action. It's true that good writing trumps all, as "they" say, but all the good writing in the world won't save too many manuscripts with nothing happening, but quick. (The market will only bear so many literary, nothing-happens novels.)

Bella Stander said...

Yes, there's a disconnect between the query and the first few hundred words. Perhaps there could have been a bit of foreshadowing--or better yet, more of the voice that's in the query. But this was the OPENING of a multi-thousand-word novel. The author is setting up the story. She shouldn't spill all the beans on page 1, else why would we want to read page 2?

Dickens begins LITTLE DORRIT with "Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day." In all of Chapter 1, there's no inkling that the bulk of the novel is set in & around London's infamous Marshalsea Debtors' Prison. There's a jail scene, but it's in Marseilles (there's the foreshadowing). But it's a fascinating first chapter and it introduces some key characters. The reader (assuming s/he likes Dickens) is enticed to go onto Chapter 2 and find out more of the story.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the feedback. I guess knowing the "whole" story I did not see the disconnect to this piece, until it was pointed out. I imagined that the backstory was important ~ perhaps it is not; or perhaps it is just a separate story.

Thanks again,

Cheryl Mills said...

I would read the book described in the query letter, but I'd have to agree with the disconnect comment. I vote you start with the death and backfill later. I feel kinda bad critiquing a memoir, but just like in fiction, you should start with the day everything changed, the day the resolution was imminent. Since your point seems to be dealing with TRUE single parenthood, then you'd start with the day the other parent died. Not the day you met.

Manic Mom said...

I was interested in the query; I love memoirs, and I also liked this phrase:

my mom-lit-with-smarts-and-heart memoir.

What if you started the story with you finding out your ex died, and how your children reacted. Pull us right into the drama.

Very nice writing and great descriptions!

Anonymous III said...

I agree with the disconnect.

As Miss Snark said, it's backstory. You write as if you're answering an interview question, making a lot of effort to sound smart and not wanting to leave anything out.

Do the opposite. Make us feel how you felt.

Pick up a literary book told in the first person and get really inspired. Don't be afraid to make mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Again, this input is invaluable! One of my problems is the order of things - and what makes sense where - and with these comments perhaps I do start with the end, or the middle I suppose. I think my hope is that even more people like all of you leave comments. Now if I could get this feedback all the time I'd be set! ;-)

Thanks again,

Anonymous said...

"I always wondered, though; "

That's not a whole clause, lose the semi-colon. Get a copy of Elements of Style and read it.

The character always says always. She's telling, not showing, and her life is bloody boring. I'm from a trailer trash background, and we'd have LOVED living in any kind of a house with no wheels!

machaut said...

another kind of time problem, and one I've seen before: within these few paragraphs there are several layers of history and reminiscence with embedded flash-forward, making the narrative seem structurally unsound (as well as confusing). I'd ask the author to untangle it.

JJ said...

Bella, the problem with using Dickens or any of the greats of yore as a comparison is that times change. I adore Dickens. Would it sell today, from an unknown writer? SINCERELY doubt it. There have been a number of experiments where folks retyped classic books and sent them to publishers or agents, all to be resoundly rejected. Our attention spans are much, much shorter than they were 100 or even 20 years ago.

Anonymous said...

How does a writer polish and edit without an editor? Without feedback how does one know the inherent flaws? I get all the comments - and am grateful for the constructive criticism - just not sure how I go about making it right.


Anonymous said...

I know this is all subjective - but to be true to the character - and the story you have not read - the details of her house are very important and in direct contrast to her upbringing. I realize that a trailer trash upbringing might lend credence to liking any house with a foundation - not true in the case of this main character, uh, me. Thank you for the POV though, it's interesting.

McKoala said...

Could I suggest that you start with a crisis - you have clearly experienced many - and then move back/forward?

A. M. said...

Exactly, jj.

In *contemporary* fiction I expect the story to start right away and the backstory to be marbled in. Bits and pieces that pop up at just the right moment and aren't overly long.

wonderer said...

#21, if you want more feedback, there are several good critique groups online - for example, Elektra's unofficial Crapometer at http://crapometer.blogspot.com . At least one person has sold a novel after feedback from the Meter Readers.