Three of my favorite memoirs that I have read in recent weeks have a something in common, besides being beautifully wrought: they don’t follow the genre’s typical format.
In Safekeeping, Abigail Thomas brings immense depth and texture to pages where white space often dominates. Some chapters are only a few sentences long, yet we feel we are right there with her as she becomes a single mother in her mid-twenties, a widow much later after her beloved second husband dies, and as she experiences the wonders of everyday life.
Thomas proves that short, blog-like prose can pack a powerful punch.
In Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi shows that sweeping and universal themes can be profoundly communicated in the form of a graphic novel. We get so swept up in her childhood in Tehran under the Shah, and then the Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq, that we forget we are immersed in images rather than text. (And she does a remarkable job of showing us life not just through her eyes—but also through a hijab.)
Satrapi proves that simple, black-and-white drawings can render as complete and colorful a world as text.
And, finally, in H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald shows that a life’s chronology (in this case, dealing with grief) can be shown not merely as a straight line, but through narratives that move back and forth in time, from past to present and back again, yet are woven together masterfully to tell a coherent story.
Macdonald proves that memoir does not have to be held prisoner to the linearity of the life as it is lived.
These memoirs can help you understand how your own story might transcend the mundane.
Do you readers a favor and make a pass through your manuscript in search of "be" words.
Any time you see is, am, are, was, were, be, being, or been, figure out if you could rewrite without losing any meaning.
We were in a blue and orange hot air balloon and were looking all around. It was quiet—until this huge gust of wind started up. Before we knew what was going on, our balloon was out of control. The pilot was pulling on the cord to try to lift us above the air current we were stuck in. We were thrown against each other as we headed toward a tall building. Everyone was scared even though we were trying to be calm. Miraculously, we lifted until we were as high as the roof and hit it, hard. The basket was dragging along, knocking over the air conditioning units.
Great action, but BO-ring! How about a rewrite?
We soaked in the view as our blue and orange hot air balloon climbed. The higher we rose, the quieter everything became—until a huge gust of wind hit. We lost control even as the pilot pulled on the cord to try to lift us above the air current. We stumbled and fell against each other as we headed toward a tall building. Everyone looked like they wanted to scream, but no one did. Miraculously, we rose and hit the roof, hard. The basket dragged along, knocking over the air conditioning units.
The rewrite isn’t perfect, but eliminating “be” words makes it tighter and more interesting.
The client was the senior physician at a busy medical practice. He wanted to blog “because so many other doctors do it,” and it might even “be fun.”
His first post was about diabetes. But it read like an article from a medical journal, full of jargon, footnotes, and ten-dollar Latin words. He was coming at it from his perspective, not that of his readers.
By answering one, simple question, I was able to chop, simplify and energize his prose.
“What’s in it for me?”
All writing is sales writing. We want to persuade the reader to keep reading.
And that means getting personal.
Think first about why readers would be interested in your blog post (or murder mystery, or letter, or whatever). Make sure they know what’s in it for them, and they will be persuaded to stay with you to the end.
A while back, I emailed a book idea to one of my favorite authors--I’m talking if-I-were-on-a-desert-island-with-only-five-books favorite--Erik Larson, and asked him for his top writing tip.
Less than ten minutes later, his reply hit my in box. I have rarely been happier.
Larson writes wildly popular narrative nonfiction, including Isaac’s Storm (about the 1900 Galveston hurricane that until last week was the worst in U.S. history) and The Devil in the White City (parallel stories of two charming and brilliant men working in Chicago in the early 1890s: the mastermind behind the 1893 World’s Fair, and one of the nation’s first and most horrifying serial killers).
He said he had already picked his next project, but that my pitch was the best he had ever received. Nice of him to say, whether true or not.
And his writing advice was this: before you stop writing for the day, always know exactly what you’re going to write when you sit down the next day.
Simple, yet powerful.
We get stuck because we don’t know what to do next. We need to take a step, but in which direction? If we don’t know the answer, then vacuuming the living room or trimming the cat’s nails suddenly becomes enormously tempting.
Knowing what to do next keeps our work flowing. It makes the process seamless. And so far, it has kept me from getting stuck.
Are stories out there, waiting to be discovered, dusted off, and launched into the world?
Stephen King thinks so. “Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground,” he says in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.
As a plotter (who outlines, as compared to a “pantser” who writes by the seat of their pants), I’ve always been skeptical.
But then I saw a quote on the wall of an exhibit on archeology at the Natural History Museum of Utah: “It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”
And it hit me: Writers are, in fact, archeologists. It’s just that we’re creating the bones ourselves, as well as giving them life through story.
We create what readers find through plot, setting, and characters. But that's just a start. We then use subplot, context, and voice to give them something to find out.
We can either stumble upon our story as we wander around in our wild, subconscious mind, or carry the map we prepared with our methodical, conscious mind.
Either way, as Stephen King notes, a writer’s job “is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.”
There were two hundred words about how the writer enjoyed her early morning walks with her two French bulldogs.
The trees she passed were tall, and their leaves a burnished amber in the fall. Dead leaves crunched under her feet. She smelled the smoke from fires in the fireplaces of nearby homes. She heard the sounds of small critters rustling in the woods. She wore the brown leather boots she got in college, and her favorite green sweater. The cold made her cheeks red. When she got home, she took off the sweater and made a cup of tea—Earl Grey.
You get the picture.
We know we should “show, don’t tell.”
But readers aren’t interested in a blow-by-blow account of how you make breakfast or choose which wine to buy. We are doing all this ourselves, minute by minute.
We read in part to escape this relentless unfolding of everyday life.
We need to see only enough to orient ourselves into the world of the character at a particular moment. We need only the important stuff.
In this example, it might be a brief mention of two sensory details—perhaps the cold on her cheeks and the crunch of the dead leaves.
And then, one additional detail that gives insight into the character or what’s going on.
The most interesting detail would be the boots she’s had since college. Why did she keep them? What does it say about her sense of style, of who she is? How have they held up over the years?
This tells us more about her world and how she experiences it.
Only the important stuff—that’s what keeps readers turning the page.
“How did I feel about having cancer? Bad!”
The client knew he had to talk. He hired me to tell his life story, after all. But he was a man of few words. He didn’t like dwelling on the obvious. And while he was deeply introspective, he rarely volunteered information about himself.
That made my job tricky.
His mid-life cancer was the turning point in his life, the dividing line between before and after. I suspect that without it, he would not have been motivated to write this book. This episode would be the focus of more than one tenth of his 60,000-word memoir.
But he wasn’t ready to respond to my prodding.
So, instead of asking subjective questions about this very personal experience, I asked objective questions like the following.
By framing this very personal ordeal in objective terms, the client was able to look beyond himself. He could frame it as an experience similar to making his first million dollars, or moving his company to new headquarters.
And once he got going, he felt comfortable looking inward and sharing the kinds of personal observations that make the story much more powerful.
His story now has a heart as well as a litany of facts, and will be much more appealing to his readers.
Identify the one thing the scene is about. In this example, the scene is about the author, and it is set during her physical transition from post-World War II-era Germany to the United States. This is a major milestone (placed at the correct point to be the inciting incident). Given this, everything in the scene must reflect her thoughts and actions.
Condense or delete information that detracts from what the scene is about. We need to know that the stewardess (the correct term for the era) speaks, because this signals the end of the flight, but we don’t need to know exactly what she said.
We need to know that the author prayed, because that shows us her worldview and character, but we don’t need to know the exact words she used.
Move information that is important but irrelevant to this scene to the appropriate scene. We need the reference to the author’s mother protecting her children during the war, because that highlights the contrast between the author’s old and new worlds, and her own role as a new mother, but this is not the best place to mention her request to carry on the name Samuel. That is important, but belongs in a scene that shows the author and her family under immediate threat of being taken to concentration camps.
We need to know that the birth was difficult, but that belongs in a scene related directly to the birth.
Contrast the original text, below, with one possible revision that takes the reader more directly to the heart of the scene.
Original (527 words)
It was May 19, 1963. The voice of the stewardess on the intercom woke me up from a light doze. I could only understand a few words of what she was saying in English, and my heart pounded with mixed emotions. Her language changed to French, which I partially understood, and then she spoke German, my native tongue.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are approaching New York International Airport, the United States of America. Please refrain from smoking, fasten your seatbelts, and place your seats in the upright position. Upon disembarking from the aircraft, please go into the passport inspection station and proceed through customs. Please have your passports ready as you enter the inspection station. After that, you may continue to your next destination. We hope you enjoyed your flight with Trans World Airlines today.”
I glanced at my sweet son, Samuel, next to me in the baby carrier. Her strands of brown hair and fair skin made her look like a porcelain doll. He was finally sleeping after a long and restless flight. I stroked his forehead feeling thankful and blessed to be the mother of this precious child. His birth had been difficult and I still had not recovered fully. I promised to love and protect him with my life, trusting that Samuel would have a better life, compared to my childhood. I prayed, “Lord, if something should happen to me, please watch over Samuel. I request your blessings to protect him from the ravages of life. Grant him a life of dignity and freedom in America, a country I have loved and cherished since I was a child.”
Samuel opened his eyes as if he were confirming my thoughts. After months of anticipation and preparation, the suspense would soon be over. We would be a happy family, with my beloved husband, the father to our child, and live together in Chicago. This would be the very first time that Roger would see his son, our Samuel, as he had returned to his duty station before Samuel’s birth. I looked forward to holding my beloved husband in my arms again.
My dear mother deserved the credit for my courage and faith; I had observed her profound courage, how she managed to maintain her optimistic attitude even under the most trying of circumstances. She was determined to make the best of every situation, and so would I. I remembered her request that if any of us ever had a baby boy, to name her after her Uncle Samuel. She wanted the name of the man who saved us from being sent to one of Hitler’s concentration camps to live on.
I remembered how loving and protective she had been as she huddled over us children during the terror of World War II; now it was my turn to be a good mother.
My heart pounded faster—finally my childhood dream was coming true! As we disembarked from the airplane, I was experiencing joy, fear, and anticipation, all at the same time. Soon I would set foot on what I had felt for my twenty-six years of life must be holy ground, the United States of America.
Revision (221 words)
May 19, 1963. The voice of the stewardess welcoming us to New York International Airport woke me from a light slumber. Looking out the window as the horizon drew closer, I saw the Statue of Liberty. I cried tears of awe and wonder as she majestically welcomed Samuel and me to our new home.
We landed, but I did not get up. I wanted to relish this moment between two worlds. As the others gathered their belongings and disembarked, I stroked Samuel’s brown hair and fair cheeks as he slept in his baby carrier. In a few hours, we would be in Chicago, and Roger could hold his baby boy for the first time. I vowed to do all I could to make Samuel’s life in America better than my life had been in Germany, and to be a good wife to Roger. I prayed for guidance. I remembered Mama’s strength as she huddled over us children, shielding us as much as she could from the terror of World War II.
Now it was my turn to be a loving mother. Samuel opened his eyes, as if confirming my thoughts. I wiped my eyes, picked him up, and got our things. I stood up straight and took my first step onto what must be holy ground: the United States of America.
The caller said she wanted me to edit a 200-page doctoral dissertation—and several more projects would follow in the next few years.
I did a little happy dance around the living room. This was my first inquiry for my freelance business, and her research was in my field. I hadn’t even finished my website or ordered business cards.
She didn’t hesitate when I gave her my price.
This is great, I thought. How hard could it be to make a good living doing what I love?
In this case, plenty hard.
A few months later, I ended our relationship—and did another happy dance.
These are the red flags I look for now (but thankfully have not seen again):
She isn’t ready to work with an editor. The sample she gave me was okay, but when I got her complete dissertation, it was a structural mess. I thought I could rework it, but didn’t know enough about her specific topic to feel confident doing so. I gave her an outline that specified what should go where. I talked to her for an hour and a half about it. I even volunteered to spend an afternoon with her to go through it all until everything was in the right place. She wasn’t interested.
She expects you to do much more than she hired you to do. In her discipline, direct quotes that are more than a certain length must be indented. She had a lot of long quotes, so she told me that she didn’t want any of the quotes to be more than ten words. In other words, she wanted me to rewrite as well as edit. She also sent me articles about her topic and asked me to “work them into” her dissertation. No, thanks.
She doesn’t respect your time. The client had a fairly demanding job, so I didn’t mind talking to her after business hours and during weekends. But when she started calling at nearly midnight, or before seven a.m., I let her calls go to voice mail. I had to remember to silence my phone to avoid the dings that announced the barrage of text messages that followed.
She brings other parties into conflicts. I tell clients that they are the subject matter experts. I leave comments and suggestions for things that are confusing or inconsistent, but ultimately, it’s their work entirely, with their name on the cover. When I questioned her use of a particular statistical analysis that I was familiar with, she didn’t talk to me about it, but sent a blistering email to her committee chair, complaining about me. The committee chair copied me on her reply (which is how I found out about it), telling her to do as I had advised.
She does not communicate for months, then expects you to meet a tight deadline. When nearly nine months went by without a peep, I assumed she had found an editor she was happier with. Then, she emailed me her dissertation, completely rewritten. And by the way, she needed it four days later. I thought about telling her it would cost more, since this was a different document entirely, or saying I didn’t have time. Instead, I did the work, not wanting to give her a reason to badmouth me.
A few weeks later I got a text: “I’m officially a Dr. now!! Woo hoo!! Couldn’t have done it without you!”
“Congratulations,” I replied.
“And I have reworked it into a journal article. Check your email in a few minutes.”
I sent her an email explaining why it would be best for her to find someone else, and gave her a list of other freelance editors. I wished her the best of luck.
I wished her new editor luck, as well. He or she was going to need it.
Three of us got together at a bakery every month to critique each other’s murder mysteries.
I spent five or six minutes going through my friend’s pages, suggesting more precise wording, asking about a description that seemed to conflict with what was said in a previous chapter, and noting places where the back story could be broken into smaller chunks and woven more artfully throughout the story. I praised an outstanding metaphor.
As an INTJ, I was proud of my ability to see the big picture as well as the smallest details. I thought I had helped my friend.
Until it was the other person’s turn, that is. “Why is this chapter necessary?” he asked. “What does it add?”
It was like being struck with lightning—the kind that kills your darlings dead in their tracks.
The chapter was unnecessary and added nothing.
It did not tell the reader anything new about the action or the characters. That made it worse than pointless, because it was likely to throw readers out of the story completely.
When you write, just write. Don’t think about grammar or punctuation. Don’t worry about formatting or theme or flow. Just write until you can’t think of anything left to say.
But before you edit, remind yourself that everything in your work must either advance the plot or give insight into the characters.
After each scene, ask yourself, “Did this move the story forward or show the reader more about a character?”
If the answer is no, you must kill it or rewrite it. It’s that simple.
Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. D.H. Lawrence
Art is the only way to run away without leaving home. Twyla Tharp
To be an artist means never to avert one’s eyes. Akiro Kurosawa
Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life. Pablo Picasso
Art teaches nothing, except the significance of life. Henry Miller
The artist’s vocation is to send light into the human heart. Robert Schumann
No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time. It is just that others are behind the time. Martha Graham
A Writer’s Approach to High School Reunions (Part 1)
Why do people go to their high school reunions?
Dr. Matthew Lieberman, in Psychology Today, noted that, “for many of us it’s the same reason why we would watch a Friends reunion show all these years later. We know it wouldn’t be very good, but we still want to know how the story turned out. Humans are storytelling, story-loving creatures.”
For writers, the motivations of the other participants can provide a wealth of storytelling ideas:
Curiosity and comparison. Some people are there because they want to see what their peers are like after all this time—and perhaps to show everyone how much better they’re doing by comparison.
Justice or closure. Some might want to finally put their high school nemesis in his or her place, even if just by recognizing how the tables have turned over the years. Others might want to more formally reach closure with that person, or to apologize to someone for some long-ago incident.
Hope. Some might want to rekindle romance with an old boyfriend or girlfriend.
These are basic—and dramatic—human motivations. Use them to your advantage!
Attend your reunion as an observer as well as participant. Pay attention to what others do and say, and how they carry themselves.
Add a little imagination and “what ifs,” and you’ll have plenty of juicy material to work with—and the results might be very good, indeed.
—Ann Kellett, a proud Wampus Cat from Conway, Arkansas.
Writing is solitary, creative, and self-directed—the opposite of life in high school. Those of us who become writers might be tempted to skip our high school reunions.
I’ve been to only one, but the subject is on my mind as my husband and I make plans to go to his thirtieth reunion in the Texas Hill Country. In my highly scientific poll of the six writer friends I happened to see this week, five said they have not attended any.
One said he goes every time, but he’s one of those weirdo extroverts.
If we weren’t part of the in crowd, or if we couldn’t wait to graduate and move on, or if we can hardly remember our teachers, much less the majority of our classmates, why should we attend?
I can think of three reasons why writers should make the effort:
To learn from our interactions with others. Like the novelist E. M. Forster said, only connect. It’s just for a few hours, and these are people you have something in common with. Use the time to network: reconnect with those you’ve lost touch with and reach out to those you don’t remember at all.
Promote yourself and your work. Watch their eyes light up when they find out you’re living the thrilling and glamorous life of a writer.
Try to leverage your connections into something mutually beneficial. Think of it as a game. Is a classmate a member of a book club that might enjoy your novel? Do you write about a topic that would make a good program for an organization a classmate is a member of? Can you get a mention in your school newsletter—or offer expertise that the school might hire you to provide?
To satisfy our writer's curiosity. Are the cool kids still cool? Does anyone still dress like they did in high school? Did the nerds make it big? What are the jocks doing now, all these years later? Who lives in other countries, and who never left home? Who looks so much better than they did in high school—and why? Whose career is most surprising, given what they were like in high school?
To sharpen our observational skills. Pretend you’re doing research for a job, or explaining the experience to a reader or client. How would you describe the energy in the room? The people? The food? Come up with five adjectives for the whole thing. Come up with a hook for a short story based on what you see, and its first line. Note your most interesting observations for use in your work at some point.
If you go, you might rekindle relationships that could benefit you personally and professionally—and no one has to know that the writer’s life is not that glamorous.
—Ann Kellett, a proud Wampus Cat from Conway, Arkansas.
Setting refers to when and where a story takes place, and the circumstances that affect the characters.
By thinking about your setting the same way you think about your characters, you can use setting to fulfill the critical functions of advancing the plot and giving insight into personalities (the most important functions of any aspect of your work). Doing so adds depth and realism to your work and frees up your real characters to take on other roles.
Here are five ways to craft your setting as you would a character:
Give it personality. The Shire in The Lord of the Rings is thought to be based on the pastoral English countryside: compact and green, with pockets of forests. It is gentle, but substantial, providing sustenance and stability to the hobbits who live there. The book’s hobbit protagonist, Frodo, demonstrates similar qualities of maturity and substance that constantly remind the reader of the beloved home he left behind—a good trait in a quest story.
Make it unique. Only one thing claims Scarlett O’Hara’s heart in Gone With the Wind. Husbands come and go, the latest fashions from Paris become irrelevant, and the family members closest to her—her father and young daughter—are taken away from her. But her homestead of Tara endures as a tangible representation of both a lost way of Southern life and the only hope she sees for her future. It is as uniquely hers as her own reflection in the mirror.
Give it secrets. A setting does not have to be big or bold to have profound dramatic impact. Consider the “secret annex” where young Anne Frank hides with her family during the Nazi occupation of Holland (Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl). These cramped quarters underscore every aspect of life for Anne and the others: boredom, a lack of food and other basic necessities, and the constant threat of being discovered. The space is both protector and antagonist, and thus serves as a kind of character.
Give it contradictions—both good and bad qualities. The ocean in The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea provides a way for fishermen to make their living—as well as to meet their demise. Like most people, it is not one dimensional, and thus adds depth and texture to the plot.
Make it change. Weather is part of setting, and can quickly turn as deadly as any other literary antagonist. Into Thin Air, the story of a disastrous expedition up Mt. Everest, and Isaac’s Storm, the story of America’s deadliest hurricane to date, are beautifully crafted examples of how weather can drive the actions and thoughts of characters
Setting refers to when and where a story takes place, and what’s going on in society that influences the characters. Like every element of your writing, your setting has two jobs: to advance the plot or provide insight into the characters.
Unless your plot could take place anywhere, your work will be much better if you make your setting as interesting and important as any human character. There’s a reason it’s Sex and the City, not Sex in the City. The physical infrastructure and pulsing energy of New York are present in nearly every scene, making the landscape a character that drives the plot and give insight into the other characters.
One way to think about setting as character is to tap into the Jungian archetypes (patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious) that are found in a place.
A few examples:
Forests. Forests are wild, dense and dark, beyond the reach of civilized society. They often represent the unknown, and thus are great settings for scenes of transformation as your character “wanders in the wilderness.”
Possible substitutions: a city, a prison, an inner-city school, or even a nursing home.
Gardens. Unlike the forest, every aspect of a garden is overseen by humans, usually with the goal of creating beauty. They are perfect for scenes of retreat and contemplation, where your character sorts out something in a setting of safety and carefully curated opulence. (Gardens also can represent longing or nostalgia for the lost Garden of Eden.)
Possible substitutions: a museum, a high-end retail store, a high-end hotel.
Mountains. Mountains can be dangerous and difficult to climb, but reaching the top gives your character the chance to see clearly in all directions. Mountains also are often associated with a higher, supernatural power, so that characters have additional wisdom and insight when they return.
Possible substitutions: a university (the “ivory tower”), a skyscraper.
Caves or tunnels. While these, like forests, also represent the unknown, they usually provide a much more singular and focused experience. The entrance typically is also the exit, and there are few predators. Alone and hidden, characters can (or must) face their deepest fears, and emerge with greater self-knowledge and direction.
Possible substitutions: a car, a ship, a hotel room, an office, a hallway, a lonely highway.
Water. A lake (or calm water) can represent contemplation or repose (or to its extreme, stagnation), while the vastness and power of the ocean represent alienation, danger, and nature’s dominion over humans. Crossing a river can signify the conclusion of the previous way of being and the beginning of a new way of being or adventure (and the river itself often signifies the passing of time).
Possible substitutions: a church (lake), a corporation (ocean), a venue where a rite of passage is held, such as a wedding ceremony or graduation (river).
A setting that reflects what the character is thinking and experiencing will give readers much greater insight into the plot and empathy for your characters.
Start the next section of your writing before you leave. It’s much easier to write after a break (even if it’s just overnight) if you know exactly what comes next. Your creativity will continue to be hard at work while you are away, and when you sit back down to write, being able to pick up where you left off will be a boost.
Get back to work as soon as possible. It’s tempting to add a day or two of down time after returning home, but you’ll be better off if you get your rear in the chair right away, while the glow of your vacation is still with you. The laundry and bills can wait.
Give yourself something to look forward to. You can buffer your post-vacation letdown if you promise yourself a reward, however small, for getting back to work—that book on writing you’ve wanted to read, or an hour of browsing at the bookstore.
Be grateful for the things you have at home that you missed while away. It will be easier to get back into your writing routine if you find reasons to be glad you’re back: your cat that is always by your side, your neighbor who gives you homegrown tomatoes, that blend of coffee available only in your town.
Keep a reminder of your vacation near at hand. Put postcards on a bulletin board, magnets on your fridge, or photos as your screensaver, for an instant lift. Think about what you learned and the fun activities you participated in, and try to find a way to add them to your writing.
Having dinner with novelist friends is not like having dinner with normal people.
After a while, conversation turns to things like how a large enough dose of potassium can mimic a heart attack . . . how being forced by his father to spend a night killing and plucking chickens at a poultry processing plant at the age of fourteen was a rite of passage into adulthood, although he didn’t recognize it at the time . . . how overhearing a conversation on a bus provided the hook for her next book.
Someone said, “We’re not nosy—it’s a writer thing.” Someone else said, “We’re not know-it-alls—it’s a writer thing” and “We’re not obsessed with details—it’s a writer thing.”
“It’s a writer thing” is an apt defense for the weird intricacies of the writer’s mind.
Embrace it and be proud of it!
View the world through the eyes of a writer. It’s a lot of fun and can enrich your work.
Memoirists in particular must let readers see and experience what they see and experience.
Here is one example.
The original scene, in Russia just after World War II:
We were walking down the street one day when a mad woman began swinging a big piece of wood with nails in it and screaming that she had lost her family during the war and did not know what to do anymore. “My dear husband, my Anatoly, is not here anymore. He’s dead! I can’t live without him,” she cried out loudly.
We were scared. She swung her two by four wildly and struck a man who was walking by and some others. The police arrived and took her to the mental institution, and the ambulance picked the man up and took them to the hospital.
One possible rewrite:
Marina and I took our usual route to school that morning. As we passed the bakery, a woman came charging at us, swinging a two by four with nails in it. Her eyes were wide and glassy. “Anatoly is gone—killed!” she screamed. “I can’t live without him!”
We froze, and she turned to a man who had just come around the corner. She hit his shoulder from behind and he fell. She swung at others, hitting some and missing some. Two policeman came and grabbed her arms. She quit screaming and started sobbing as they carried her away. A few minutes later, an ambulance came.
They have the same number of words, but the rewrite has more information to help the reader experience this event.
Notice how just a few key details let the reader see the bigger picture.
We don’t need to know what the woman was wearing or what she looked like. Her “wide and glassy” eyes show us enough.
We don’t need to hear her say that Anatoly is her husband. The context of war and loss means we can assume he is her husband or son, and their exact relationship is not important. (It’s also a bit unlikely that she would announce this to everyone in this situation, which might throw some readers out of the action.)
By adding a few, specific details, writers can make scenes vivid and realistic for the reader and entice them to turn the page.
You use passive voice instead of active voice. Here’s how you can tell the difference: If you can add “by writers” to the end of your sentence and it still makes sense, then it’s in passive voice. In other words, passive voice should never be used by writers.
Why not say “Couple struck by tire iron at least 17 times?” If the published headline is correct, then the real news story is how an inanimate object was able to do anything at all.
Your punctuation is confusing. As it stands, this headline makes no sense. “Man shot; another stabbed; woman loses teeth” is better.
You have unnecessary words. Every word should move the plot forward or add insight into character or setting. "Data" does not add any information and should be omitted.
Your writing isn't as straightforward as it could be. Why not just say “Houston man drowns at San Luis Pass?"
You try to be clever or cute when it doesn’t fit. This writer made a pun for “free for all,” but it doesn’t work well since the connection with the topic of fleas isn’t clear.
The sentence: “By the time I was middle aged, I realized I looked like my mother.”
The idea might be interesting, but few readers (besides the client’s mother, perhaps) will want to read more. It is a fuzzy, gray blob of a sentence. There’s nothing to hold on to.
I asked the client to go deeper. We talked about the three parts of the sentence: her at middle age, the realization, and her mother’s looks. We reminded ourselves that every sentence should move the plot forward or give insight into setting or character (even, or perhaps especially, in memoir).
We focused on the writer’s obligation to honor every word.
She ended up with this.
“The morning I turned fifty, I brushed my teeth as I always did. But that day, in front of the bathroom mirror, I realized that I had my mother’s nose.
I felt cheated.
Mother spent her days in the yard or on the tennis court, never with a hat or sunglasses. Skin care meant a daily scrub with Ivory soap and a dab of Noxzema.
And while she had a fine nose, by the time she was fifty, she had the nose she deserved: enlarged pores and tiny capillaries in the creases by her cheeks.
She looked middle aged. And now, I did, too.
This was despite decades of slathering on sunscreen and seeking out shade, of avoiding the sun between eleven in the morning and three in the afternoon, and of preferring the taunts of my peers at the beach to the leathery skin in their futures. Of spending one fourth of my first paycheck on a regimen of salves and astringents and serums that promised to keep me dewy forever.
I felt cheated, and then I felt liberated.
Who the hell is looking at me, anyway? I would continue to wear sunscreen on the tennis court and add a hat in the garden, but never again would I let my vanity keep me from living life.
I have a fine nose, too.”
It’s your first draft. You deserve all kinds of accolades for finishing. Yay, you! But don’t call an editor yet. Instead, put your manuscript away for at least two weeks. Then, bring it out again and read through it with fresh eyes. Fix all the things that need fixing — and believe me, these things will jump out at you. Read it through once for plot, and then for character, and then for structure, and then for setting. Go through it again to correct any errors of grammar, spelling, or punctuation. Yes, that means you need to read through it five times, at least. If you want someone else to do this work, then hire a ghostwriter.
You’re too close to the material. At some point, your manuscript becomes a commodity as well as your baby. Your editor wants your work to be the best it can possibly be, and that often means revising with a machete as well as with a scalpel. That can be hard to take, especially if you’ve written a memoir. If the thought of making changes makes you defensive or sad or angry, then you’re not ready to work with an editor.
You don’t know what your book adds to the world. If you can’t answer the “why” questions (why you wrote this book and why anyone should read it), then answering the “how” questions (how all its different parts answer these questions) is much harder. Your editor can’t read your mind, and if your destination is uncertain, then your editor will not know how to make sure you end up in the right place. Know what you want to accomplish through your work before you hire an editor.
As Stephen King says in his brilliant On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, "Only God gets it right the first time, and only a slob says, 'Oh well, let it go, that's what copyeditors are for.'"
Focus on answering just one question: “How can they sell what I have to offer?” Do your homework so you are paired with an agent or editor who best represents the kind of work you do. Spend a few minutes on their website and find out about their agency and the authors it represents. And read the person’s bio. The goal is to connect with someone who is looking for what you have to offer.
Prepare a “one floor” elevator speech. At the beginning of your session, describe your work in just one sentence, then state your hook, word count, and genre. Then, when it’s appropriate, give your longer elevator speech. You’ll make the most of your precious few minutes if you get to the point. This also helps the agent or editor focus on you even if you’re the eighty-ninth person who has sat across the table that day.
Make the most of your time, even if it doesn’t go well. If your work is not a good fit, don’t argue or get defensive. Instead, use your remaining time to ask for advice about agents or editors who might be receptive, or for advice about future pitch sessions.
Think of it as a fun speed date interview, not a stressful job interview. What everyone says turns out to be true—they’re actually human, so relax! If you’re nervous, try channeling that energy into enthusiasm and positive excitement. The agent or editor is there to find that terrific new client, and it might as well be you.
If you’ll be at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents and Editors Conference in Austin this weekend, I wish you the best of luck!
Go to sessions a few minutes early and get acquainted with the people sitting nearby. Think of it as painless networking: since you’re interested in the same speakers and topics, chances are you have something in common. And since you have only a few minutes, it’s not nearly as awkward to end your conversation.
Speaking of awkward: Make networking as painless as possible. A preacher friend of mine says his idea of hell is the coffee hour preceding the worship service. If you’re like him, paying attention to body language can help. In a room full of small groups of people chatting, look for those whose arms are relaxed or who are gesturing more, whose feet are not directly facing the others in the group, and who look away from the others in the group more often. If someone in the group makes eye contact with you, you can feel more comfortable approaching them. In addition, smile and make eye contact with others to signal to them that you are approachable.
Come up with one or two key takeaways for each presentation you attend. As soon as you can after a presentation, go through your notes and distill them into one or two takeaways for later implementation. Pages of notes, no matter how interesting they are, won’t benefit you if you don’t identify what specifically is most relevant to you, and as time passes, you will be less likely to go back and re-read them.
Go through your notes to identify action items as soon as you get home. Once you’re back in your routine, it’s harder to remember what happened at the conference. Sort your notes into a list of action items not related to your writing (people to contact, books or other resources to get) and action items related to your writing (tips or techniques). Then, get busy! Follow up while the momentum of the conference is still with you.
Follow up with business cards. As soon as someone gives you their card, jot a note on it to remind you of the context of your meeting and any follow up needed. When you get home, take action on the ones needing follow up and add information for all the relevant cards into your contacts list.
And if you’ll be at the Writers' League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference in Austin this weekend, say hello!
The client’s writing was masterful—clear and charming—and her story was compelling.
But by giving every incident equal weight, her pacing threw the reader out of the real story.
The paragraph where she described a close relative’s attempted sexual assault was sandwiched between paragraphs of equal length related to other aspects of life as a seventh-grader, one about the dog that showed up on her doorstep and one about how her science teacher never smiled.
As observant as the author was, her work would be much more powerful if she delved deeper into the story behind the facts.
We read (and we read memoirs in particular) to learn how others handle situations and grow from them so that we might have more light to shed on our own lives.
And to do a good job as memoirists, we must stop thinking in chronological slices, as if our lives were a flipbook where the illustration on each page gives an equal portion of the story in real time.
For example, if I were writing my memoir, I would approach it like this.
The most important interaction I ever had with my mother lasted three seconds.
What happened was that she kissed the back of my hand. It was the last thing that happened during our last time together.
My parent’s didn’t hug or say “I love you.” They were aloof and distant. They “did” love but rarely “exclaimed” love.
My mother was diagnosed with dementia at 86 and functioned well until she went into steep decline in a matter of hours the following year. Her eyes were glassy, and she forgot how to chew or swallow food. She looked like a baby sparrow before it sprouts feathers.
I put my hand over hers when I spoke to her, never sure how much was getting through.
That day, as I told her I had to leave to meet Daddy for lunch there at the facility where she lived, she raised my hand in hers and kissed it.
Those few seconds open up all kinds of issues related to the three relevant areas of my memoir: my mother’s point of view, my point of view, and the combined point of view found in our interactions.
Because of that, I would give this incident a great deal of weight—in terms of word count, probably about the same as I would give to her in the entire section that covered my life after I left home for college.
Every time I mentioned my mother, I would include something about the physical nature of our relationship. I would include her pressing me to the wooden pew to keep me from acting up in church when I was two, for example. I would show how her coming of age during the Depression in a loving but stern Protestant family shaped her worldview, and the hints she gave that being a housewife thwarted her creative freedom.
Likewise, I hope my client chooses to take us a little deeper into the story of her relative’s ugly treatment of her so that we might learn more about her life and our own.