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Introduction to a debut book of short stories

Hi everyone,

I wrote a book of short stories with the slight difference that they are all entirely true. Some are more memoirs, but most of them are actually written as standalone short stories. The common theme is that each story focuses on a 'stranger' (usually unnamed) who I met in my life. The book is titled 'Strangers I'll Never Forget'.

My publisher has asked me to write an introduction. I am not keen on a Foreword, since I usually find them to be either pseudo-intellectual, or else full of spoilers about the book. I usually skip them. But I can see the point of an introduction by the author, especially a new author.

I'd appreciate your feedback on the introduction below.

Particularly:
a) Is it too long for an introduction?
b) Would this encourage you to read on?
c) Should I scrap it, or maybe just leave the last paragraph?
d) Should I just jump into the stories, thereby leaving the reader in doubt as to whether the stories are true or fiction? The narrator is always me, but the stories happened over three decades, so the viewpoint is varied.

Thank you for your time and comments.

Mark

_____________

Introduction

    Searching for things to say when admiring the babies of friends and patients, I often comment on how attentive they look, how ‘nothing escapes them’. This usually goes down very well, and has even been met with knowing nods from nearby grandmothers. Although the baby might just be staring out into a blurry, colourful void and trying to figure out where this new voice is coming from, everyone senses that a keen awareness of our surroundings is a skill that will serve us well on life’s journey.

    Then we grow older, and this attention and awareness unfortunately becomes what advertising and now social media fight for and, as populations expand, noise levels rise and neon lights shine brighter, it can be a bit overwhelming. But I believe it would be wrong to just shut everything out and escape to a life of solitude or become a cloistered nun. If we manage to filter out the noise, the fads, the excess, there is a vast and rich collection of stories, of drama, of humanity, unfolding around us every day.

    As much as I enjoy tales of wizards, dragons and galaxies far, far away, it is the real world that fascinates me most. I’m lucky to have a GP job where emotional human situations unfold in my clinic several times a day, so I know that life is often, as they say, stranger than fiction.

    Even when reading fiction, however, I tend to reach for stories that feel very real, very possible: stories that, as tumultuous as they may be, could easily be happening down the road from you or me. The setting and the protagonists may be what we call ordinary, but the events are often extraordinary. New beginnings, loves, deaths—millions of these happen every day. All of them unique, all of them deeply moving, at least to the people involved. As we walk through life we sometimes catch glimpses of these other lives: couples waving their arms at each other silently in a car while stuck in traffic, people limping home at seven in the morning in full evening attire, little old ladies doing their shopping dressed entirely in black. These are the things worth noticing. These are the things that remind us of our humanity. And these are the situations where sometimes, but only sometimes, we might be called upon to help.

    In 2006 I drove home in the early hours of a weekday morning and decided to write down all the details of an unusual date that had just unfolded. My primary aim was to amuse my close friends by getting all the details of the story right, but I also wanted to document the night. It felt like a better way of preserving the memory, of cementing it so as not to let it get washed away by the barrage of other sensory stimuli coming my way every day. Just like with photos and video, it helped crystallise that moment, and I resolved to do it more often.

    My life is quite normal and—considering all the things that could go wrong—I am grateful for that. I’m a middle class white male, living on a westernised, English-speaking island with great weather. Not exactly stuff to write about. But I’ve been lucky to meet a few colourful characters over the years, and enjoy playing the role of keen observer. The difference between a fleeting memory and a good story is often just the act of telling it or writing it down, so hopefully I’ve done the right thing by preserving, within the coming pages, these cameo appearances in my life. I’ll never forget them, and hopefully neither will you.


MJ Camilleri
Sept 2021, San Ġiljan


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Replies (9)
    • I liked this very much. Here are my notes. Just one person’s opinion, of course. Good luck with it!

      a) Is it too long for an introduction?

      No, a nice length and interesting.

      b) Would this encourage you to read on?

      Yes for reasons I’ve detailed below.

      c) Should I scrap it, or maybe just leave the last paragraph?

      Keep it. For me the last paragraph with the whole middle class white male thing was the weakest.

      d) Should I just jump into the stories, thereby leaving the reader in doubt as to whether the stories are true or fiction? The narrator is always me, but the stories happened over three decades, so the viewpoint is varied.

      Your choice. Readers don’t need to know the stories are real. I guess it depends what you want to achieve as a writer. Life stories from a GP could be a hook. Or if you want to make a name as a fiction writer, don't go down that line. All writers draw from life experience anyway. It would still be okay to say that your inspiration came from real life. Bear in mind that if you publish in one genre it is easier to publish the second time in the same genre. 

      If keeping it real life, I'm sure you are aware that you have to change many details because of liable. 


      Searching for things to say when admiring the babies of friends and patients, I often comment on how attentive they look, how ‘nothing escapes them’ [remove quotation marks] . This usually goes down very well, and has even been met with knowing nods from nearby grandmothers. Although the baby might just be staring out into a blurry, colourful void and trying to figure out where this new voice is coming from, everyone senses that a keen awareness of our surroundings is a skill that will serve us well on life’s journey.

      [I like this paragraph, it shows you think deeply about humanity and makes me want to read on. ‘Us’ is inclusive of you, the author, and me, the reader, and pulls me in]

         Then we grow older, and this attention and awareness unfortunately becomes what advertising and now social media fight for and, as populations expand, noise levels rise and neon lights shine brighter, it [could you be more specific than ‘it’, for example, ‘the deluge’] can be a bit overwhelming. But I believe it would be wrong to just ['just' is weak, I would remove] shut everything out and escape to a life of solitude or become a cloistered nun. If we manage to filter out the noise, the fads, the excess, there is a vast and rich collection of stories, of drama, of humanity, unfolding around us every day.

      [Again like this, paragraph, it speaks of mutual human experiences]

      As much as I enjoy tales of wizards, dragons and galaxies far, far away, it is the real world that fascinates me most. I’m lucky to have a GP job [remove ‘GP job’, insert general practice] where emotional human situations unfold in my clinic several times a day, so I know that life is often, as they say, stranger than fiction.

      Even when reading fiction, however, I tend to reach for stories that feel very real, very possible: [would a semi-colon be more suited here?] stories that, as tumultuous as they may be, could easily be happening down the road from you or me. The setting and the protagonists [I question using the word protagonists for non writers? I don’t know?] may be what we call ordinary, but the events are often extraordinary. New beginnings, loves, deaths—millions of these happen every day. All of them unique, all of them deeply moving, at least to the people involved. As we walk through life we sometimes catch glimpses of these other lives: couples waving their arms at each other silently in a car while stuck in traffic, people limping home at seven in the morning in full evening attire, little old ladies doing their shopping dressed entirely in black. These are the things worth noticing. These are the things that remind us of our humanity. And these are the situations where sometimes, but only sometimes, we might be called upon to help.

      [Like again, for the same reasons above, like the examples of ‘other lives’.]

       In 2006 I drove home in the early hours of a weekday morning and decided to write down all the details of an unusual date [presume this is a romantic date, it sounds a bit like a calendar date. I’m not sure if ‘unfolded’ relates well to a romantic date] that had just unfolded. My primary aim was to amuse my close friends by getting all the details of the story right [remove 'right'], but I also wanted to document the night. It felt like a better way of preserving the memory, of cementing it so as not to let it get [‘so as not to let it get’, is weak, I would rephrase.]washed away by the barrage of other sensory stimuli coming my way every day. Just like with photos and video, it helped crystallise that moment, and I resolved to do it more often.

      [Like this. It shows why you are writing]

       My life is quite normal and—considering all the things that could go wrong—I am grateful for that. I’m a middle class white male, living on a westernised, English-speaking island with great weather. 

      [This doesn’t ring true with all you have written above. You obviously see the exceptional in the normal, therefore you are not normal (not everyone does that). And you are a writer, you are clearly not normal -- I’m one too, I know! I also think that readers don’t want to be told you are basically a bit boring, which clearly isn't true. Also living on an island with great weather is reasonably exceptional, to my mind. I don't like ‘middle class white male’, I personally don’t think gender, colour, or class matter and I wouldn’t mention it. You did such a great job above of drawing me in with the shared experiences of being a human being, and now you are highlighting what you are, and therefore what I am not, creating a sense of separation.] 

      Not exactly stuff to write about. [Cut. You’ve proved there is stuff to write about above] But I’ve been lucky to meet a few colourful characters over the years, and enjoy playing the role of keen observer. The difference between a fleeting memory and a good story is often just the act of telling it or writing it down, [Like] so hopefully I’ve done the right thing by preserving, within the coming pages, these cameo appearances in my life. I’ll never forget them, and hopefully neither will you. [Last sentence seems a bit cliché.]

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      • Thank you Iren for this wonderful, detailed feedback. Your over-arching point is an excellent one - you helped me realise the contradiction in how I structured the introduction, and how downplaying my own experiences at the end doesn't ring true. I'll remove that and focus on the positives, thereby also cutting length. Thank you also for the all the smaller comments and suggestions. This is all priceless stuff and will all be used to re-write the whole thing.

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      • I think the introduction is in principle a good idea, because it expands on your collection's USP. Is it too long? I'd say it is, or more to the point, too slow. Such musing can enrich a story if it hangs onto a narrative structure that makes us want to read on. But an introduction has no "what happens next?", so there is even more of an onus on you to make your writing here as direct and vivid as possible. Because of it's slowness, it wouldn't encourage me to read on.

        There are some highlights: the opening about the baby is great - we can picture a scene. But the paragraph is weighed down by flab. Link the last sentence to the one about the grandmothers, and cut after "everything". "is" for "might just be". 

        Would the 2nd para suffer if you delete from "I believe" to "nun"?

        How much does the penultimate para add, especially when you give no hint about what was interesting about the date?

        Cut the weakest 30% throughout, and tighten, tighten tighten! 

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        • Thank you Glyn for this sound advice. The bits you mention are all expendable, and I see your point about needing to make the intro as tight as possible. I'll be using your comments to do some major trimming.

          (The date in question is one of the stories in the collection, so maybe I should hint at that,)

          Thanks again.

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          • I should be careful what I write here, because my two collections of short stories (which, plug plug, you can find on Amazon), have both overall intros, and intros to each story.

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          • Mark, I was reading through and (honestly) sort of daydreaming, when this phrase jumped out at me: These are the things that remind us of our humanity. 

            Wow.

            Maybe open with that, then shorten/strengthen/restructure the rest. And do not diminish yourself/your observations and experiences. You don't want to convince an agent you are dull, you want them to find you and what you have to say, fascinating and compelling. Then show us those things that define us so well!

            :-)





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            • Thank you Cathy for your kind words and good advice. I will be adjusting the intro based on your comments and the ones above.

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            • Hi Mark,

              I confess I usually skim intros in my haste to get to the good stuff. Occasionally one resonates. That said, my personal take would be to cut to the gist of the situation and begin with paragraph 4. Like you, I enjoy and sometimes write about those experiences that resonate and beg to be remembered. 

              Here's my edited version of paragraph 4 (which to me is enough said....though others may, and probably will, differ):

               When reading fiction, I tend to reach for stories that feel real, feel possible; stories that, as tumultuous as they may be, could easily be happening down the road. The setting and the protagonists may be what we call ordinary, but the events are often extraordinary. New beginnings, loves, deaths happen every day. All of them unique, all of them deeply moving, at least to the people involved. As we walk through life we sometimes catch glimpses of other lives: couples waving their arms at each other silently in a car while stuck in traffic, people limping home at seven in the morning in full evening attire, little old ladies doing their shopping dressed entirely in black. These are the things worth noticing. These are the things that remind us of our humanity. And these are the situations, at times, where we might be called upon to help. 

              You intrigue me with the people limping home and the ladies dressed in black. I want to get to those stories. The babies not so much.  You might suggest the efforts to 'help' often turn into situations that are possibly otherwise.

              I'm just 'less is more' mindset, especially as I get older. Hope these  comments help.

              Connie

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              • Connie - Thank you for these comments. You're very right about less is more, and thank to you and the ones who commented earlier I've managed to trim this into down substantially without losing any of the essence.

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