Tag Archives: memoir

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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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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Walking on Cloud 9

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.cloud

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.

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Good Things Come in Threes

Well, it’s official. Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow, which means six more weeks of winter.

Which means six more reasons to find a good book to read! If you don’t have a pile on a bedside table waiting, here are a few I’d recommend:

me before youMe Before You by JoJo Moyes

Think  My Fair Lady (original play – Pygmalion), The Sound of Music (The Story of the Trapp Family Singers), even You’ve Got Mail (based on play Parfumerie; little shopgirl/caregiver partnered with/pitted against wealthy “landowner.” Only with a twist: former Buttered Bun cafe clerk is hired to be companion for former stud-now-quadriplegic. More than a romance (thankfully, as not my thing), a story about choices. Couldn’t sleep until I finished it, and then I couldn’t sleep after.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt and Fairyland by Alysia Abbottwolves

Both, coincidentally, swirl around the “gay” topic, and both are told from young girls’ points of view. In the novel Wolves, set in New York City, June unravels her uncle’s secret life. Revealed in bits and pieces only after his AIDS-related death, June struggles to understand him and herself. On the opposite coast in San Francisco, Alysia also struggles to understand, love, and ultimately forgive her own father in her memoir, Fairyland.

fairyland

And while all three (of which all are now on my GoodReads list of favorites) feature female protagonists (which, oddly, was not why these books were chosen), fear not, testosterone readers. A strong male presence figures prominently in each book; in fact, without Will or Finn or Steve, there would be no story. The relationships between each of the pairs is of paramount significance. You must read them for yourselves; I will not spoil.

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