Here in the States it’s Thanksgiving, and as I reflect on the many things I’m thankful for—home, family, friends, my congregation, freedom, and meaningful employment—I want you to know that you have a place on that list, too. When I started this blog just under three years ago, no one was paying attention, and I had no assurance anyone would. But here you are. Your kind attention and thoughtful comments make this endeavor worthwhile. So I am thankful for you and to you, Dear Reader, for sticking with me. Whichever holidays you celebrate, may you be abundantly blessed this season.
Under the heading of “don’t deceive your reader,” I want to file this piece of advice. When you’re telling your story, tell it directly, and don’t pretend it’s someone else’s.
I see this a lot, and I don’t understand why authors do it. They launch into a tale about “someone” who has an awe-inspiring life story and then at the end say “that person was me.” This is silly enough when the author goes to lengths to avoid using a proper name. It becomes reader deception when you slap a nom de guerre on the “character” and then reveal the character to be oneself.
Spending a page or three—or ten—faking out your reader is disingenuous. And what benefit does it bring?
None. It pulls the rug out from under your reader for no good reason.
Reader engagement will be faster, deeper, and more intense if you are open and vulnerable with them from the start. They have bought a book written by you. While it’s true that their foremost consideration is what’s in it for them, secondarily they want to know about you. Because you’re the author of the book they are reading. By purchasing your book, they have agreed to hear your story. They deserve to have it delivered appropriately.
I often tell fiction writers not to conceal the identity of the viewpoint character. For many of the same reasons, you shouldn’t conceal the identity of the protagonist when it’s you—especially if you are going to reveal that it’s you anyway. Modern readers crave authenticity. Lying to them, even briefly, damages the trust they’ve put in you.
Schemes like this are a misguided attempt at surprise. Yes, we want to use surprise to keep readers engaged. But we also want to be fair and honest. The best narrative nonfiction employs fiction techniques to keep readers engaged. But playing tricks on readers makes for unsatisfying stories. Tricks are therefore best avoided, because a reader who can’t trust you is likely to stop reading.
Our goal as writers is to engage readers and keep them turning pages. One of the best ways to do that, in nonfiction as in fiction, is to make the readers feel as if they are there. The way to do that, especially when we’re telling personal stories, is by being completely honest with them and allowing them to experience the story fully.
A special challenge of narrative nonfiction is deciding how closely you want to stick to the truth. Do you want to be fully dedicated to it, come what may? Or do you want to soften some blows, change some names to protect the guilty? Maybe you feel a little creative exaggeration will make for a more engaging story.
There is a very real danger in drifting from the truth when you write your story as narrative nonfiction. Remember that the difference between narrative nonfiction and other types is that narrative uses fiction techniques to tell a true story. That does imply that the story is still true.
Bestselling authors and major news organizations have been forced to retract ostensibly nonfiction stories that turned out to be false. One recent incident involved Rolling Stone magazine’s campus rape story. This story included some vividly dramatized scenes—written like a novel—with fully formed dialogue and everything. That kind of artistic license can get a writer in trouble.
In his article “The Re-Creationist Myth” on the Lingua Franca site, Ben Yagoda analyzes the Rolling Stone story to see how the writer’s dramatic techniques produced a narrative that was engaging—but ultimately too far afield from the truth. The writer describes in precise detail events she did not witness. The biggest mistake she made was neglecting to interview the person she identifies as “Drew”—the primary perpetrator. That his voice is not included in the story was one of the inconsistencies which led to the story’s retraction, and to allegations that “Drew” doesn’t even exist.
Re-creationism is a device that can work really well in the telling of stories in which a protagonist does not encounter an antagonist, but that in other kinds of stories has inevitable flaws.—Ben Yagoda
James Frey, the author of A Million Little Pieces,* fell into this trap. He invented so much in his “memoir” that as more and more of the details were debunked by investigative journalists, his publisher had to add a disclaimer stating that the book is a combination of facts from the author’s life and “certain embellishments,” which is putting it lightly.
The further from documentable truth you get, the more you need to clue your readers in to what you are doing. One technique memoirists and other narrative nonfiction writers use is creating composite characters. This allows two or three characters to represent, for example, your entire high school class. Homer H. Hickam Jr. does this in his memoir Rocket Boys, but he says so in an author’s note at the front of the book. He tells us that some peoples’ names have been changed, and that he “sometimes combined two or more people into one when I felt it necessary for clarification and simplification.” Hickam also admits to having “taken certain liberties in the telling of the story, particularly having to do with the precise sequence of events and who may have said what to whom.”
This kind of disclaimer is necessary when you bend the truth to tell your story.
In an article for Poynter Online, a journalism site, Roy Peter Clark outlines two basic principles:
- Don’t add to a story things that didn’t happen.
- Don’t deceive your reader.
He writes, “It is not the fiction that’s the problem, but the deception.”
So if you use techniques like invented dialogue or composite characters, add a disclaimer to let readers know you have done so. Just don’t mislead people into believing things that are not true.
*—Not to be confused with James N. Frey of the How to Write a Damn Good Novel series, who will straight up tell you when he’s writing fiction.
One more post on editing books for the Christian market, and this one’s a touchy subject. The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style calls for lowercase deity pronouns (that is, he and his when referring to God). This deeply offends some people, who see it as a sign of disrespect, despite the fact that for 1800 years no one ever capitalized these. Pronoun capitalization first turned up in the Victorian era and faded out in the mid-twentieth century. CWMS notes that it therefore gives text a dated feel.
But many people feel very strongly about capitalizing these pronouns. In your manuscript or self-published book, you may capitalize or not according to your preference. Be sure to inform your copyeditor what that preference is.
But if a publisher that is paying you for your book adheres to CWMS and therefore lowercases them, don’t argue. Pronoun capitalization is not an article of the faith, or King James’s translators would be in trouble.
Also, be aware that your preferences regarding deity pronouns may be affected by your choice of translation. Because when you quote from the Bible, you must retain the capitalization and punctuation of the chosen translation:
Then the Lᴏʀᴅ put forth his hand, and touched my mouth. And the Lᴏʀᴅ said unto me, Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth.—Jeremiah 1:9 (KJV)
Note that the King James Version does not capitalize either his or my. If your text capitalizes the pronouns and your Bible quotations do not, readers may think one of them is wrong. And they’re not likely to identify the Bible translators as the ones in error. As with so much else in writing and editing, consistency is key. Ideally your pronoun capitalization will match that of your chosen translation.
So if capitalization of deity pronouns is really important to you, choose a translation that matches your preference. Most translations lowercase these pronouns, which is why CWMS advises using lower case. The following translations do use uppercase deity pronouns:
- Amplified Bible
- Holman Christian Standard Bible
- Modern English Version
- New American Standard Bible
- New King James Version
- New Life Version
- Orthodox Jewish Bible
- 21st Century King James Version
- The Voice
What about Lᴏʀᴅ?
Note that in print, the word Lᴏʀᴅ is rendered in small caps when it represents the tetragrammaton, but not if it represents some other Hebrew word, such as Adonai. This is not readily accomplished in HTML, which explains why Bible study sites use all caps instead.* So if you’re copying and pasting from such a site (perfectly OK as long as you properly cite the translation), I recommend learning how to change it to small caps in your word processor of choice. This will reduce the chances of the wrong style making it into print.
In Microsoft Word, this function is in the Format > Font dialog box. You can also assign a keyboard shortcut to the SmallCaps command if you often quote from the Old Testament. Note that Lord is never written as the Hebrew tetragrammaton in the New Testament, even when the writers are quoting the Old Testament, because they wrote in Greek, not Hebrew. Therefore in those quotations it is not in small caps. The important thing is to retain the capitalization style of your chosen translation.
There is much, much more to be said on the subject of editing books for the Christian submarket. For example, heaven is not considered a proper name and therefore is not capitalized. If you’re doing a lot of writing for that market, you’d do well to get yourself a copy of The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style. It goes into far more detail that I can in this space.
Disclosure of Material Connection: Yep, that Amazon link is an affiliate link, which means if you click it and buy the book, I will receive a pittance of a commission from Amazon. Regardless, I only recommend books I believe will be of value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
*I use the Smallcaps Generator bookmarklet to get small caps.
Quoting Shakespeare is one thing. It’s easy enough to open a copy of Hamlet to get a citation right.
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.—William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. The Harvard Classics 1909–14. Act V, Scene I. Via http://www.bartleby.com/46/2/51.html.
But when you are quoting from Scripture, you must take extra care. I do a lot of work in the Christian submarket, and the number of errors I see in Scripture quotations is appalling. I don’t know whether editors working in other religious fields run into similar issues. I suppose they do, because humans tend to be more alike than we are different. Continue reading
Q: I have literally hundreds of quotes in my autobiography, and after reading your post about them, I’m really confused. Most of what I’m writing about is not quoting a known source like Mark Twain. Rather, it’s in the form of he said, “blah, blah, blah” when I’m relating a story or incident. I don’t even know if this deserves quote marks, and I have been very inconsistent in how I use them.
A: What you’re describing is dialogue, which is different from quotations. Continue reading
One of the most common problems I see in new writers’ nonfiction manuscripts is quotations that are either inaccurate, insufficiently sourced, or both.
☐You have in your notes, if not in the text, citations and links for your sources.
Sites like BrainyQuote, Great-Quotes.com, and even Goodreads, which should know better, propagate quotations without verifying the sources. Before you reproduce a quotation in your book, track it to its source—the very first place it ever appeared. You may find this hard to believe, but often this proves rather difficult. The Internet doesn’t know everything. Continue reading