Whose feedback should an aspiring writer listen to?
My husband’s feedback is only useful for soothing my hurt feelings–which is the way I want it. When he does give me more honest feedback, I have to remember that he is the consummate intellectual, a lover of histories, theoretical science, and cutting edge politics. I think the last novel he read was Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October in the original Naval Institute Press edition.
I am fortunate that several of the literary agents I queried have given me personal feedback on my book proposal. At first, I picked and chose which lines I wanted to believe from them. But after three turn-downs, I realize that they are all telling me the same thing.
Perhaps even more crucial is that my eighty year-old mother, who reads everything voraciously and provides me the occasional writing grant (thanks again, Mom, I really love this new computer), agrees with the advice from the agents.
This is what I have gleaned from the agent’s and my mother’s criticism: Groundbreaker: Coming of Age in the First Class of Women at the United States Air Force Academy is probably publishable from a small press as a piece of American Military History.
To reach the larger, general Memoir audience, I need to write a manuscript that is more emotionally compelling. When I researched comparable books, I noted that the only coming-of-age memoirs from women were about growing up in abusive or alcoholic families. Certainly, a few things happened to me at the Academy that some people thought might be abusive. To emphasize those incidents would mean to embellish them out of proportion. It would also mean that I would have to mine my own emotions deeper than I currently remember them. I would probably change every body else’s names so as not to risk law suits. I might even change the manuscript so it is sold not as memoir, but as a fictionalized version of my diary.
Two authors of classic books about military academies took the latter approach. Pat Conroy’s The Lords of Discipline built on his own Citadel experience, enhanced by the storyline of a cadet who successfully blackmails the establishment, after its contorted sense of honor led to one cadet’s suicide and the protection of a secret society of bigots. James Webb’s A Sense of Honor is autobiographical, except for the failure of the most Webb-like character to graduate. It focuses on death in a way that did not affect me during my time at the Academy.
On the more historical side, Rick Atkinson’s The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966 is a well-documented tome on the West Point experience. It has outstanding sales, but can be very dry to read through.
So which book do I want to write? I realize that I am still angry at all the people who claimed my class had it easy and that is why women could graduate. I want to write the dispassionate, documented book to disprove every irresponsible criticism I ever heard about women at military academies. On the other hand, I want people to feel how life-changing the cadet experience is, and I want them to read my book like a novel they cannot put down.
Are these two separate books? Where do I go now?