Educated: The Archive

Our first non-fiction book!

Believe, Care, Invest in “Educated”

Okay guys, I’m starting to play around with the next book, and I’m considering the title, “Believe, Care, Invest: How to Get Everyone to Love Your Hero”. I think the heart of the book will be a walk though 10 novel examples, 10 movie examples, 10 TV examples, maybe 5 non-fiction examples, and 5 comics examples, a breakdown of the first page or chapter or 10 minutes of each, and how they get us to believe, care and invest. What do you think?

As proof of concept, let’s start with our most recent book. This is so masterfully written that I don’t have to go beyond the first page. We’ve even get Believe, Care and Invest pretty much in order!

Believe in: The best way to get us to believe in the reality of a character is through the use of vivid, specific, sensory details. Let’s look at the first two sentences of the book:

  • I’m standing on the red railway car that sits abandoned next to the barn. The wind soars, whipping my hair across my face and pushing a chill down the open neck of my shirt.

Right away in the first sentence, we have a person and an action, then we have a vivid image. Then in the second sentence we get a sensory description of the wind. This will not just be a book about what the heroine saw and heard, it’ll be a book about how her life felt in a tactile sense. Not a recitation of facts, but intimate feelings. Later in the first paragraph, we get:

  • Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air... I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess

We get not just adjectives describing nature, but active verbs: dance, sway, quiver. Nature will be personified in this book. Young Tara will be reluctant to leave this mountain, even after suffering grueling abuse and neglect there, because she loves it like a person, a person who seems to love her back. These details get us to picture the setting vividly and thus believe in the heroine describing them.

Care for: The best way to get us to care for a hero is to watch them unjustly suffer abuse, neglect, or humiliation. In Tara’s case we get lots of neglect, right here on the first page.

  • On the highway below, the school bus rolls past without stopping. I am only seven, but I understand that it is this fact, more than any other, that makes my family different: we don’t go to school.

By which she means that she is neither schooled in town nor homeschooled --she just receives no education whatsoever.  First she shows us what’s going on through the image of the bus, then she confirms what we’ve just seen: Show, then tell. This will be true of the whole book, the only way we’re going to believe it is if she shows it all to us in vivid detail. We then find out just how extreme her situation is:

  • Dad worries that the Government will force us to go but it can’t, because it doesn’t know about us. Four of my parents’ seven children don’t have birth certificates. We have no medical records because we were born at home and have never seen a doctor or nurse.

These details help us both believe and care at the same time. I had never heard of kids in the 1990s without birth certificates before, and I thought as I read, “Who could make this up?”, which is exactly the sort of response you want while writing a memoir. And of course we’re now deeply worried about a heroine who’s trapped in an extraordinary sort of prison.

Invest in: Usually, the best way to get us to invest in a character is to show that she’s independent and capable, but young Tara won’t get a chance to show much independence from her family for a long time, so the book can’t begin with that (In fact, the first chapter will show just the opposite: A time she rejected a chance for independence). But this first page gets us to invest in an ironic way. It shows she was raised to be a bad-ass:

  • I picture my father hunched by the back door, lacing his steel-toed boots and threading his callused hands into welding gloves.

Ironically, she allows us to admire and idealize this manly man, the very image of rugged American masculinity. She then makes it clear she is his protégé:

  • I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood.

We care for and invest at the same time here. We see that her parents are dangerous lunatics, but don’t you wish you could have gotten some of that training? And of course, her days will in fact be abominable, and she will have to survive them. Throughout the book, every time she survives horrific injuries, our heart will go out to her, but we’ll also admire her toughness.

We believe in, care for, and invest in young Tara Westover, all on this first page. We choose her to be our hero, instead of just going along with whatever is placed in front of us. This is how to get people to read and love your book.

How to Write a Memoir: Each Chapter Should Tell a Story

If you aren’t already famous, nobody wants to read your memoir ...unless it’s great. There are two types of book that everybody thinks they can write with no training: Picture books and memoirs. When you tell anybody in publishing you’ve written one as your first attempt to get published, you will get an epic eye-roll. They will read it even more skeptically than they read everything else.

Tara Westover lived every non-famous memoir writer’s dream. Her name meant absolutely nothing to nobody. She had only published academic papers. She just knew that her life story was fascinating, and she felt it needed to be told. She knew she needed to tell it so well that people who had no reason to care about her would suddenly care about her.  And she did it.

(And she’d then have to convince that publisher to put a huge promotional push behind the book, saying, “Trust us, you’re going to want to get to know this woman.” The book wasn’t going to sell itself …At least not at first. Eventually word of mouth might kick in, but not if it were hidden in the back of the bookstore with a terrible cover.)

I’ve talked before about how gatekeepers only read the first 15 pages of almost everything in their slush pile. Most books don’t grab them right away, so they quit reading. Westover’s story is very heroic in the end, as she breaks away from her upbringing and gets a great education …but no publisher was going to get to that if this first chapter didn’t grab them.

She could begin her book with a flashforward, previewing the heroic ending that will come, but she chooses not to do that. We begin pretty much chronologically, starting with a moment when she was ten or so and could have run away but didn’t. (For the most part, we move forward from there, but earlier parts of her backstory will be told in little mini-flashbacks interspersed with the next fifty pages or so.)

Westover seems well aware that this prologue and first chapter would be the only part most potential agents and publishers would read, because it is a complete and compelling story, with a beginning, middle and end. At the end, we are launched into the rest of the book and eager to keep reading, but we also feel that we’ve gotten a chunk that is satisfying on its own.

This is a key feature of a great memoir: each chapter has to be a great story on its own. Memoirs are, by their nature, very episodic. Each chapter will jump months or years ahead to the next anecdote. Nobody wants to read a memoir and say, “Well, we’ve had 100 pages of nothing but downward trajectory, so I sure hope this is going somewhere at some point.” They want to read constant ups and downs, constant ironies, constant dilemmas, constant decisions, constant conflict with shifting power dynamics.

A great memoirist is a great storyteller, which means you know how to tell one big story and lots of little stories. If you have a great memoir, you can read any chapter at “The Moth” at any time and satisfy the audience.

Carson over at Scriptshadow talks about how every story needs GSU: Goal, Stakes, and Urgency. In crafting this first chapter, Westover has taken three things that happened around the same time, but not at the exact same time, and interwoven them into one anecdote that has strong GSU:

  • She has a possible Goal, unique to this chapter: running away with her grandparents, which she’s not sure if she wants to do.
  • She has huge Stakes either way, which will be ongoing: Her parents have falsely convinced her that the feds may bust down the door and try to kill her for being (supposedly) homeschooled. Meanwhile, her father’s madness has suddenly purged the house of milk, the ultimate symbol of being denied sustenance she needs to live …and his madness is only growing.
  • There’s a lot of Urgency, unique to this chapter: Her grandparents have given her one night to decide if she’ll go with them or they’re leaving without her.

In the end, she rejects the goal, accepts the life of milklessness and danger from the feds, and watches her grandparents drive away without her. It’s tragic, ironic, and perilous. “The Moth” would be pleased.

Even the most skeptical agent or publisher, idly pulling this off their slush pile, would be pretty much guaranteed to be hooked by this first chapter. They would know they’d then have a huge job to do: promoting a memoirist nobody had ever heard of, but it would be worth doing, because, if they pushed this book into enough hands, it would soon begin to sell itself. And that’s exactly what happened.

How to Write a Memoir: Establish Your Unreliability

Tara Westover has every memoirist’s greatest treasure: She kept a journal starting from a young age (the only writing she ever did, because she had no school assignments.) But she still has to establish early on that the facts in her memoir might contain errors. She has to do this for several reasons. Here are the first two:

  • This is an abuse memoir about abusers who are still alive, so they’re sure to sue her and her publisher for any undotted i’s and uncrossed t’s. Anything she isn’t absolutely sure of, she has to point out that this is just her memory, it may be wrong, and it’s disputed by others.
  • She grew up in a family that was especially prone to misremembering its past. When Tara finally tries to get a birth certificate, she finds that no one remembers when her birthday is, and the few documents she’s accumulated over the years all list a different one. Later, when she’s sixteen, her parents briefly try to kick her out of the house because they’ve gotten confused and think she’s twenty!

Right there on page two she makes an observation that is generally true, but it has a footnote which tells us that there was an exception. I don’t know whether that footnote was Westover’s idea or her editors, but I think it reassures the reader. Paradoxically, pointing out that she’s made a technically false generalization on page two helps to convince us that everything else is probably just about right.

We all know there have been several recent memoirs that have turned out to be a tissue of lies, and Westover will share many shocking details that seem like they can’t possibly be true, so she has to be very careful, both to reassure us and to protect herself. And she seems to have done her job well: Her parents’ lawyer has attempted to dispute the book, but only by disputing accusations that she didn’t actually make, as the comments in that link make clear.

But there’s a big third reason that Westover has to establish that her memories will not be entirely reliable: because she’s dedicated to writing the most enthralling memoir possible, and that means that she’ll include some exciting and violent incidents that, she now realizes, she only imagined as a child. Her father has told her the story of the Ruby Ridge story so vividly that young Tara gets confused and thinks it happened to them:

  • My strongest memory is not a memory. It’s something I imagined, then came to remember as if it had happened. The memory was formed when I was five, just before I turned six, from a story my father told in such detail that I and my brothers and sister had each conjured our own cinematic version, with gunfire and shouts. Mine had crickets. That’s the sound I hear as my family huddles in the kitchen, lights off, hiding from the Feds who’ve surrounded the house. A woman reaches for a glass of water and her silhouette is lighted by the moon. A shot echoes like the lash of a whip and she falls. In my memory it’s always Mother who falls, and she has a baby in her arms.
  • The baby doesn’t make sense—I’m the youngest of my mother’s seven children—but like I said, none of this happened.

For the Westovers, neither the apocalypse nor the government’s jackbooted thugs ever arrived. There was lots of violence within the family, but none from the outside. But the imagined threat of government violence was such an overwhelming element of her childhood that it would seem false to leave it out, even though it only happened in her mind. Those are the first two paragraphs of Chapter One. She’s establishing that the stakes seemed violent, which makes this a more exciting read for us, but she’s also establishing that she now realizes it was all just in her mind (and in her father’s.)

She also has to be clear that she will be telling us these events in the most dramatic order, not chronological order. In the first chapter, she shows her grandma offer to take her away, then as she waits all night for her grandma to arrive, she tells the story of her father telling them about Ruby Ridge, then in the morning, she decides not to go with her grandma. That’s the most dramatic way to tell that story, but she makes clear that it didn’t actually happen in that order. This is very sophisticated memoir writing.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: The Necessity of Personifying Nature in “Educated”

We already talked about personifying nature with “The God of Small Things”, but Tara Westover in “Educated” does it even more so, many times over on her first page.

As I said last time, Westover has a problem, in that we will want Tara to run away from her family home long before she does, and then we’ll want her to stop going back, which she will not do until the final chapter. (In the end, she says she’ll keep visiting other relatives in Idaho, but seemingly never again her parents or her mountain.)

How can Westover help us understand her decision?

  • First, she must make Tara’s relationships to her family complex: None of them is all bad. They all love her in their own insufficient and/or twisted ways. We can even understand the appeal of “Shawn”, her most abusive family member. We understand how she would keep trying to get the love she’s lacking from these people, even though we can see long before she can that she never will.
  • Second, there’s a big element of wish fulfillment in self-sufficiency. The first sentence recalls “The Boxcar Children”, a book about orphaned kids in the depression that kids nevertheless read as wish-fulfillment, dreaming of living on their own wits and whiles in the woods. The mere fact of not being protected at all is seductive, both to young Tara and to the reader.
  • Third, there is a character that Tara can have uncomplicated love for, one that it will be the most painful to leave: The mountain itself.

You often hear said of good books that “The setting is a character”, but that’s especially true here. Let’s just focus on examples from the first paragraph.

  • The gales are strong this close to the mountain, as if the peak itself is exhaling.
  • Meanwhile our farm dances: the heavy conifer trees sway slowly, while the sagebrush and thistles quiver, bowing before every puff and pocket of air.
  • Behind me a gentle hill slopes upward and stitches itself to the mountain base.
  • If I look up, I can see the dark form of the Indian Princess.

Two pages later, she will soon explain that there is an Indian legend that says the mountain is a princess:

  • My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley. Dad said the nomadic Indians had watched for her appearance as a sign of spring, a signal the mountain was thawing, winter was over, and it was time to come home.

Her family is hard to love, but who wouldn’t want to have their own beautiful mountain, literally right out of a fairy tale? To leave the mountain is to leave her own princess-tale.

Let’s look at one more sentence from the second paragraph:

  • The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads.

This is beautifully written and very seductive. We will want to read the book for its lyrical power, and for the way it will get us to fall in love with nature again, as we would fall in love with a lover. And we will understand Tara’s love. Even when it seems like her parents want her dead, she will have the Princess to love and the Princess will seem to love her back, in its anthropomorphized way.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: A Different Type of Agency in “Educated”

Tara Westover had a problem.  She knew the hero of her memoir “Educated”, her own young self, would be very easy to believe in, because of a wealth of detail (she kept journals at the time), and very easy to care about, because of the horrible abuse and neglect she suffered, but could the reader invest in her? 

Tara (I’ll refer to her younger self as “Tara” for the rest of these posts) will withstand a lot of abuse before she runs away. As with a teen in a horror movie, the audience will be shouting “Just get out of the house!” for the entire first half (then we’ll be shouting “And don’t go back!” for the second half, but she will continue to do so.) If her family loves her at all, it’s such a sick, twisted, toxic love that she’d be better off without it. We’re going to get frustrated as she stays. We know that it’s unfair to judge an abused child, but it’s hard to root for a heroine who doesn’t try to flee this situation.

But what choice does young Tara have? She’s just a child, totally cut off from the rest of the world until she’s 17: She’s never set foot in a school, never seen a doctor, she has no birth certificate, she is forced to spend her summers canning peaches and burying rifles in anticipation of the “Days of Abomination”.

Does the fact that she has little choice mitigate our difficulty in bonding with her? No, it intensifies it. We want our heroes to protect themselves, but we also want them to have agency. We want them to be making decisions. Preferably good decisions, but even bad decisions are better than none at all.

That’s why Westover’s first chapter is so brilliant. She can’t begin with her hero fighting back, but she does the next best thing: She begins with her younger self getting one chance to choose a better life and rejecting it.

The first chapter skillfully weaves together three different incidents that didn’t actually happen at the same time (and she makes that clear): Her father’s decision that the bible forbids milk (a metaphor for denying love), her father’s obsession with the fate of Randy Weaver, and an offer that Tara’s grandmother made to her around the same time: to abscond with Tara in the middle of the night, take her from Idaho to Arizona, and enroll her in school.

And Tara seriously considers it. She knows, on some level, that she’s being abused, that she should be in school, that her grandmother is trying to save her …but in the morning she hides until her grandmother leaves without her.

Tara lacks the self-preservation instinct we want in a hero, but at least she has agency in this one chapter. She has a better option, agonizes over it, and ultimately refuses to take it. This is not the first incident in the book chronologically, but Westover must begin here to get us to invest in the character, as much as we can. For the next two hundred pages, Tara will lack capability, but she will at least have culpability, and that is compelling in its own way. The story will have irony, because this horrible life will be a life she chose. That makes it far more meaningful.

The Annotation Project: Educated

Wow, could it be the case?  A non-fiction book?  Do such books obey the typical rules of concept, character, scene work, dialogue, tone and theme?  Let’s find out!  This is also our most recent book, and one that I’m sure many of you haven’t read, but it’s one of the bestselling books of last year with good reason --it’s an instant classic.  If you haven’t read it, these eleven pages are self-explanatory and will give you a taste of the wonderful book that awaits you.  And isn’t that a gorgeous cover?  (Here’s the doc.)