“What now?” asks this author who’s finished a mammoth memoir of nearly 300,000 words. Good question, which I’ll attempt to answer.
Language: British English
Synopsis: While I may have started by telling about of my own life and that of my small world my main purpose had always been to tell the history of my family. To give it some meaning and substance I have set it against Irish history since the Civil War.
Well, that’s a question I asked myself when I stumbled into my eighties back about four years ago when I was faced with having to give some answers about my family’s history. I often try to avoid unnecessary effort but sometimes I fail to do so. What little I knew of my family’s past I had pushed to the back of my mind a long time ago. When I stirred myself sufficiently to do something about it I ended up seeking answers also to how my immediate family came to be as it was when I was growing up in Cork and my sense of my country then and later as I saw it and why it was the way it was. I knew little of that country of ours outside our own small part; of the far West only that it was said to be beautiful and romantic if poor and that people back in time had been banished there by Cromwell and others as their prayers and ways were anathema to them—but they had music there and some few, or maybe more, had an extra idiom. The North for us then was very much elsewhere; so nobody talked much about that I was aware of. Writing about all this was far from my plans at first but in time I came to see some merit in it, and so eventually I have got down to work, but I’m doing so in a drier land. Now that Phylly and I are settled in here I feel the need to tell of our daily doings for a while before getting down to sifting through events of the past—so, I suppose, this is likely to be a ramble-write of sorts.
It is early December 2016 and we’ve been back down here in La Caleta in the south of Spain for the past couple of weeks. We are fortunate to be able to spend nearly half the year in this place. Even though we have a great big harbour here it is still a small quiet sort of place– a place that for many may be regarded as a nowhere much; yet it has become a somewhere much for the two of us–our different world of sorts I suppose. I fear though that it may be about to change. Winter as such here has just arrived with a few recent days of chilly winds to temper the warmth of the mid-day sun. Right now I feel I have stepped into a world of silence which has me reflecting for a moment on how I might seek the why of events, both in the past and in the present in this increasingly digital world that is daily trying to confuse me—and often succeeding. It’s early morning now with just a little chill in the air and I’m wandering about in my slippers down here in the living- room. When I casually glance through the big window which faces out to the garden I notice a large insect trying to make its way up on the outside near the frame. What is it about? I rest my forehead against the window and study it through the fog of my breath on the glass as it slowly climbs up the other side to meet me. I tell myself it can’t surely be a caterpillar especially at this time of year and I wonder how it gets its many leg-ends to stick to the glass. Not so well I notice. I enjoy the moment …well several moments while I inspect its efforts and it has me wondering about the why of its existence. I’ve been thinking a little on this for my own self recently. Anyway, I know little or nothing of the world of tiny things that creep or crawl– maybe I should. My guess is that aeons ago we two might have been able to communicate in some way and it could tell me all, but now I and my kind have got far too big for our boots for any of that. Last night we had this great big noisy storm here which may be the reason that this little fellow is acting out of character—so it must be confused. They say that if a centipede though about its legs for only just a moment it would become so befuddled it would come to a dead stop.
Indeed all that noise and lightening that came with last night’s storm had our dog Bonni jumping up in fright on to the back of the sofa and draping herself around my head. She’s no lightweight I can tell you. It was a strange sensation for me to feel her warm palpitating belly heavy against my neck but I put up with it for some time as she seemed to think it was safe to be in this close encounter. I didn’t think to wonder then– why me? She must have sensed that Phylly was a little apprehensive. I remember when I was about ten or eleven I too was scared enough in a bad storm and readily sought any security that was going. I remember during one such storm back then when we were living in the big house and I had been watching my father make his pomme de terre duchesse, as he grandly called his effort, when the storm broke. Obviously in an attempt to allay my fright, he told me of the horrific storms that he had experienced in Canada as a lumberjack, with chain lightening blasting trees apart and setting them on fire. He seemed quite unfazed by the storm while he cooked his potato dish in the gas oven beside the kitchen window — I was his Bonni then. My concern with this weight of warm dog on my neck was that the lights would go out while I was reading and leave us in the dark searching for candles and me with a very heavy neckpiece.
Editorial comment: I’m going to have to reject this piece for the purposes of the site, which is to judge whether an opening is likely to spark interest from an agent, so we might as well get that detail over with. The reasons that an agent would cite are, in no particular order: the lack of interest in memoir generally, unless you’re a very public figure or at least notorious in some way; the length – even if they were interested in a memoir from a “member of the public”, they would balk at the wordcount, which is probably triple the viable memoir length; the rambling nature of the subject matter – even if they were interested in a memoir from a member of the public, and even if it was just 80,000 words, a quick read of the opening 300-word paragraph, where you skip from one subject to another and even admit you’re a bit of a rambler when it comes to the written word, would likely knock their interest on the head. I’ve said they’d give you these reasons. (They wouldn’t, of course, be likely to give you any reasons at all. They’d more than likely just say “Not for us, but thank you for submitting.”)
OK, so having said all that, which probably wasn’t much of a surprise, where does that leave us? As you say, what now? The size of the book is probably the biggest issue. I can’t imagine what kind of commitment it was to write it in the first place! It badly needs an edit, but even just copyediting a manuscript (MS) of this size would be an eye-watering bill running well into four figures. What about AI? Could that help? You could run it through one of the software editing programs, like Grammarly or ProWritingAid, but that in itself would take many days, and the problem with those programs is that they tend to throw out as many false positives as real errors, so you’d need to know what of their suggestions is really wrong. What’s almost worse is that they’d neatly strip out anything approaching author “voice”, any unique author mannerisms that make the memoir your own work, because those AI programs are designed for people to write operating manuals for vacuum cleaners, not interesting and empathetic fiction or memoir. There are possibly some options along the lines of a quick critique – a read-through while marking anything that seems too far off-topic and then leaving you to rewrite what’s left, but that would have to be thought through.
So it’s not really publishable in its current form, but fixing it in its entirety would be prohibitively (for most people, anyway) expensive. What else could you do? I suppose there are two options. If the story of the memoir could be split, at any point, you could have volumes one and two, or three. The split could be geographical – “my life before I went to Tibet and became a monk/my life afterwards” – thematic – “my life on the road as a circus clown/family life, having settled down in Ranelagh and becoming a vet”, or some other split. You’re not getting away from the size or expense of the total wordcount, but you are breaking it down into more manageable pieces, both for yourself trying to get it into a publishable state, and for the reader who then might not be so intimidated. If it can’t be split, then you’re facing the unenviable task of rewriting it, but making it much shorter. You mention a lot of historical context since the Irish Civil War. I wonder if there isn’t a possibility of stripping out the intensely personal family memoir and keeping that separate from a different book on post war Irish history? That way you get to keep most of the writing, but they form two different books with different foci, one a family memoir, not without historical context but that not forming a major part of the book, and the other a historical perspective on Irish history since the Civil War, that would only mention your family history if an ancestor happened to play a significant role.
However, even as I write it out, that sounds like a great deal of hard work which you might really not want to bother with! It’s a shame, because the writing itself, which I have yet to even mention, is engaging and entertaining, if rambling. It’s very conversational – you write almost precisely as if you are telling the story, while sat in a comfortable armchair, to a wide-eyed younger relative. Part of that rambling is just the nature of discourse – you mention an idea and then get sidetracked into explaining your train of thought before coming back to the original topic many hundreds of words later, which is just what happens when we’re telling stories from memory. It’s charming writing, nicely expressed with particular detail (I like the image of you with your forehead pressed against the window watching a caterpillar!) but the sad fact is that, trying to earn a living, I just don’t have time to read it right now. If only I did have the time.
You could, of course, just say to hell with it – publish and be damned – but without some reduction in the wordcount I’m not sure you’d have many readers.
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