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 Scissors
- 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)
- 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.
- 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!
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:
- 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 …”
- Donate (or delete) words that take up space. “… with a smile on his face” is just as effective using “… with a smile.”
- Throw away worn-out phrases like, “Her eyes twinkled like diamonds,” “Little did he know,” “Needless to say,” blah blah blah.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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.
NaNoWriMo (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.
As I try to wrap my head around the loss of my friend and mentor, former publisher Carolyn Hayes Uber, and attempt to describe her influence, her persona, her life, I am struck by a remark I heard just today that helps put everything in perspective. And the fact that this remark mentions a common editing term (the dash), is serendipitous. Carolyn would be tickled.
In the documentary Into the Abyss, director Werner Herzog interviews Fred Allen, who explains his role in executions as the former captain of the Death House team at the Polunsky prison unit in Livingston, Texas. Allen is clearly conflicted (eventually resigning his post), as he sees the lives of inmates reduced to numbers: 1954 – 2011, for example. He realizes and explains, quite eloquently, that our lives are not reflected in a birthdate or date of passing, but the dash in between. (Granted, it’s really a hyphen, but I’m not here to edit today.) Mr. Allen then asks, How are you going to live your dash?
Which brings me back to Carolyn, who lived her dash with courage and strength and humor and love. So for Carolyn and my father and my “adopted” mother Patricia and other dear friends who are no longer here, I will live my dash, really live it… bravely, respectfully, happily. I hope you will, too.
As I’ve mentioned before, writers have a tendency to rely on favorite words and phrases … often without even knowing it. Maybe it’s considered part of your style or personality, but from an editor’s standpoint (who advocates for the reader), these “catch phrases” can become annoying and distracting.
Because I’m being objective and looking at a manuscript with fresh eyes, I can easily see the repeated words (and can make suggestions or revisions). I can search for how often the word or words have been used. But you can’t do this, because you don’t know what you’re looking for! It’s like looking up the correct spelling of a word in the dictionary … when you don’t know how to spell it.
But now there’s help. Word clouds. Thanks to an attendee at my recent writing workshop, I learned of an amazing tool to self-regulate your pet prose. There are many Word Cloud programs available, which take your text and visualize your repeated words. I found one, TagCrowd, which not only creates a very cool image of the words you use most frequently, but it can also tell you how many times you’ve used them.
I worried for a minute that I was shooting myself in the foot by revealing this trick of the trade, but then I realized, if I can help one memoirist from repeating “I remember when,” one mystery writer from abusing “He couldn’t help but notice,” or any number of storytellers from plastering “In fact,” “Of course,” “That being said,” it will be worth it. I’m sure I’ll still have plenty of work to do.
You’ve probably seen the sign for “jumbo shrimp” and laughed at the obvious incongruity, but have you paid attention to the oxymorons in stories you read … or stories you write?
I’ve been keeping a list as I run across these wacky word combos, and thought it was time to share. They are in random order, which, I hope you can see, is exactly my point. While they’re entertaining, I suggest NOT using them in your literary masterpieces.
For instance, if your bank robber is brandishing a dangerous weapon, I ask you (gently), is there such a thing as a weapon that is not dangerous? Your star-crossed lovers get an unexpected surprise; tell me, isn’t a surprise supposed to be unexpected? Wouldn’t an expected surprise defeat the purpose?
Mysteries and horror stories often have an uninvited guest (stomping about in the attic). Help me understand this; a guest is invited, yes? I think uninvited is an intruder!
Is your hero on an adventure or involved in a secret mission and finds him or herself in a tight squeeze? I wonder what other kind of squeeze there could be. Of course, your character could be clearly delusional. How about strangely delusional or clear and coherent… but not both, eh?
Should you be writing a cookbook or diet book, perhaps you can explain diet ice cream, Kosher ham (really?) and in the section on portion control … the bigger half. If you can, you are eligible for a free gift.