Thanks for the Memories

As I prepare to participate in a panel discussion on writing non-fiction and memoirs for the Central Oregon Writers Guild (and shamelessly promote the event!) I thought I’d share these points:

Your best chance of writing a salable memoir is to read as many successful memoirs as you can. Here are a few examples (in alpha order by author, not necessarily by rank):

  • Augusten Burroughs ~ Running with Scissorsscissors
  • Elizabeth Gilbert ~ Eat, Pray, Love
  • Howard Shulman ~ Running from the Mirror
  • JD Vance ~ Hillbilly Elegy
  • Jeannette Walls ~ The Glass Castle

Each memoir is unique, but if your story can illustrate a theme that resonates so that others can identify with your experiences, you will have a more memorable (haha) book.

  • Surviving horrific challenges (Running from the Mirror)mirror
  • Coping with a parent’s mental illness (Running with Scissors)

Tell the truth (be real, for better or worse, because that’s what gives you credibility).

  • If you fudge on details to make yourself or others look better or change names, why are you writing a memoir? Write a nice fictional romance and be done with it.

But… don’t get hung up on accuracy.

  • Unless writing that you were home at 2:00 instead of 2:30 proves you didn’t rob the bank, don’t be specific with every detail, or readers will miss the big picture.
  • Eliminate junk words. “I remember being three-years-old when blah blah blah.” Of course you remember; it’s your memoir! Just say what you need to say: “I was three-years-old when …”

Come up with a great opening line to get the reader into your story.

  • Yes, this is true for any book — fiction or non-fiction. For some reason, though, memoirists feel it is more important to be factual than dramatic and entertaining.

Rewrite/revise mercilessly.

  • Cut scenes or situations that are irrelevant to your theme(s). You do not have to include every single life event. Remember, a memoir is not an autobiography!
  • Combine or rearrange sentences that begin with the word “I.”
  • Find and delete repeated words (-ly words, such as “quickly,” however, really, just). We all have favorites that we don’t even realize we overuse. Readers, will find them and get annoyed!
  • If you find yourself skimming a paragraph, consider deleting it. If it doesn’t interest you, it’s a good bet your readers won’t be interested, either.

Print out your manuscript. It’s amazing what you’ll catch on a physical copy.

Read your manuscript aloud. If you stumble over phrases or sentences, it’s quite possible your readers will, too.

And finally, competition for readers’ attention is fierce. For greatest chance of success, your story must be in the best possible shape. Hint: get a professional editor!

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“Pearls” of Wisdom

I collect books. I don’t mean in the sense of stalking garage sales or funky antique stores in search of rare tomes, though I certainly have and appreciate my signed first editions. I’m talking about collecting books whose titles have randomly caught my eye, reviews that have piqued my interest, or ones that friends have recommended. I have amassed a list — and pile — of books that will keep me occupied for a very long time.

But here’s the problem, and I’m guessing I’m not alone: I anxiously await the moment I can dig into a new book that I’vebook lust been coveting only to discover that I don’t really like it. The “digging in” becomes a chore. Thankfully, I discovered Nancy Pearl, librarian guru, whose 2003 book, Book Lust: Recommended Reading For Every Mood, Moment, And Reason gives permission for us to stop torturing ourselves!

Unlike the mantra we probably all heard—clean your plate, there are children starving in Africa—Nancy offers a formula for reading that relieves me of my guilt. As she explains in the book’s introduction, her “rule of 50” says that those under fifty-years-old need to read 50 pages of a book before calling it quits. Those over 50—who, she gently reminds us, have less time to squander—need only read the number of pages that is their age subtracted from 100.

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photo courtesy of Rebecca Wilson, Dec. 2011

Brilliant!

She also admits, and I wholeheartedly agree, that while we might not be able to slog through a book now (and can quit according to her formula), we might actually love the book at another time when we are in a different frame of mind. Case in point: I struggled with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road… the first time … and had to put it away. Six months later, I loved it.

With that, I am formally putting a few books on notice. I don’t want to identify them—to avoid hurting “their” feelings, or more importantly, influence anyone who might be swayed by my inability to lovingly devour a book that was rated 5 stars on Amazon or Goodreads. Being the optimist, however, I am hopeful that I will eventually embrace them. And if not, there’s a mountain of reading material to choose from waiting patiently by my bed, on my bookshelf, in the closet …

 

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Spring Cleaning

For many of us, warmer weather inspires us to want to clean out closets, wash windows, declutter. And with the latest onslaught of “organizing” books and blogs telling us to let go of items we don’t use, don’t wear, or don’t really like, the message is clear: use it or lose it.

I realized that this also applies to writing and to my efforts in editing. The goal is the same: help writers organize their thoughts, declutter their stories, and clarify their meaning. To put in more tangible, spring-cleaning terms:clothes

  1. Like washing windows, choose words and use words that sparkle and allow the light to come in. Instead of “She ran around the room making sure everyone was comfortable” … “She fluttered …”
  1. Donate (or delete) words that take up space. “… with a smile on his face” is just as effective using “… with a smile.”
  1. Throw away worn-out phrases like, “Her eyes twinkled like diamonds,” “Little did he know,” “Needless to say,” blah blah blah.
  1. Say goodbye to that old sweatshirt (your go-to favorite words) that you unwittingly sprinkle throughout your manuscript. This is tough, because you probably don’t even realize how often you are using your favorite words, but they usually pop out to me when I’m editing. They can be anything from “just,” “so,” “that,” to “quickly,” “suddenly,” “longingly,” or any “ly” words.
  1. If it doesn’t fit, don’t force it (or save it until you lose those ten pounds). That is, pulling out the thesaurus to find a word for “happy” sounds like a good idea, but replacing it with “jubilant” or “whimsical” might be overdoing it. Use alternatives with care.
  1. Maybe go-go boots and polyester pantsuits work at a 70s costume party, but they don’t fit well in today’s world. Same with words; be sure to use words and phrases that reflect the time period. Writing “on the world wide web” is awkward now, just as “swipe right” doesn’t mean a thing to that go-go dancer.

Good luck – and good riddance!

 

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Shelf-Life

As I prepare to donate many many many of my books, I wanted to pay tribute to some of them before they disappear from my bookshelves.

tidyActually, it was our most recent book club selection that inspired me to reduce my collection of books, which, I admit, is plentiful. A short and irritatingly cutesy book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo managed to motivate me to let go of hats, shoes, bags, and all sorts of clothing. The book has ignited conversation about our need for “stuff,” though author Kondo is clearly young, single, and comfortable financially, as evidenced by her naive and sometimes simplified attitude (“…if you find you’ve discarded something you really need later, you can always buy it again…”) And while I took into consideration the fact that the book was written with the help of a translator, I still found the writing awkward and at times, downright silly. But, then again, I have filled several bags and boxes with items for the local homeless shelter, family kitchen, and library (70 books to date; barely a dent).

Another book club choice, Hyeonseo Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names: A North Koreangirl 7 Defector’s Story, was also translated, though the book’s tone was definitely more serious and “important.” Lee’s struggles as a teenager living under a brutal Communist regime … and her strength at such a young age to be able to escape and travel and manage to not only survive but thrive… reminded me again of how little one really needs to lead a happy, fulfilling life.

We also read Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure by Don and Petie Kladstrup, a continent and several generations earlier than the previous two selections. The dedication and perseverance of the French to protect their wines — wine and wartheir heritage — was not only heroic, but frightening. Whether you drink wine or not, the history and stories were remarkable testaments to the cruelty and stupidity of war. Unfortunately, while I gained a greater appreciation for the grape, I was disappointed in the storytelling. Repetitious and a bit flat. A book that I was glad to have read but wouldn’t recommend.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls propelled us even farther into the past … late 1800s Paris. The story was aspainted girls beautiful as Degas’ work upon which the novel was based, and with as much painful description of a ballerina’s life at the time. Author Buchanan’s diligent research added exquisite detail to create a moving and touching book. After reading this, I wanted to paint and dance!

 

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Teed off

If you don’t know what’s wrong with this picture (or rather, T-shirt) and you intend to write

—a literary masterpiece or a letter to Grandma—you need an editor.

Call me.dumb

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En-TITLE-ment

Recent chatter about copyright infringement concerning music (see Spirit’s “Taurus” vs. Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams “Blurred Lines” vs. Marvin Gaye’s “Gotta Give it Up”) has reignited discussion of copyright issues in the literary world.

According to the Berne Convention (the international source for copyright law), your original manuscript is protected by copyright as soon as it is fixed in tangible form. That is, the moment your great American novel is written—on paper or your computer—you’re copyrighted. For how long, you ask? In the USA and much of Europe, it’s the creator’s lifetime plus 70 years.

But here’s the funny thing; book titles are not protected by U.S. copyright laws.

grace 4To qualify for such protection, a work needs to possess “a significant amount of original expression” and the courts have ruled that expressions as short as book titles do not qualify. (That’s why, when my book club pals had heard about a great book with the words “Ordinary Grace” in the title, we had to get more specific; there are almost 2,500 books to choose from!)

This doesn’t mean, however, that you can name your book Fifty Shades of Grey. Some titles qualify for trademark protection (series titles like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Twilight, etc.) if the grace 3books become successful enough to be considered recognizable brands. A trademark protects words, phrases, symbols, or designs that identify the source of the goods or services of one party and distinguish them from others.

So, while it would so clever to title your new cookbook, The Hunger Games, you can’t. But if you name it, A Place at the Table, nothing’s stopping you, except for the fact that 6 other writers have already done so. (Our book club read the version by Susan Rebecca White, if you’re interested.) I’d recommend coming up with some other imaginative wording – it avoids confusion. What if your fans buy the wrong book? Why help someone else have a best seller?grace 1

By the way, our book club chose the Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Thumbs up.

 

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On Your Mark, Get Set, Delete

8771980627_de67e9d87a_zNaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is over. You’ve completed the challenge—writing 50,000 words in a month. Congratulations!

Now comes the real work. Making every word count. Getting rid of the words that don’t.

Case in point: “began.” They began arguing. He began acting suspicious. I began to get irritated.

(The truth is, when I get irritated, I don’t begin to get irritated. I just am.)

Another word to think about deleting is the word think! If you’re writing a memoir and write “I think I was about five-years-old,” I suggest instead, “I was about five-years-old.” A small difference, but cleaner.

And just for fun, how about that word just? It’s a word that just isn’t needed. Search your manuscript – you might be surprised how often you’ve used it. Try deleting just a few of them; you probably won’t even miss them.

Enough of that. I mean it. “I wish that we could … whatever.” How about “I wish we could …”?

If you don’t miss it – if your story reads (just) as well without it, you will (begin to) write a much tighter, better story.

Take that.

 

 

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