Taking honesty to a new level (in your writing)

Writing an awesome memoir requires being honest with the reader.

This is pretty basic, Memoir Writing 101. You’ve got to reveal your true self through your story, because if you don’t, readers will know it. They might not be able to put their finger on it, but they’ll know something’s off. If you’re not completely and utterly honest, your voice won’t feel authentic and the story won’t work.

So we know the importance of being honest with the reader. But what about being honest with yourself?

During my last round of revisions, I kept feeling like something was missing from my story arc, from my tale of personal growth. It took a lot of digging, but I finally realized I wasn’t being completely honest with myself about why I chose to travel alone.

I’m not going to tell you exactly how this plays out in my manuscript because it’s crucial to my book’s theme, and I don’t want to give it away. It has to do with my deep-down fears and how they affect how I live. But my point here is that it took me this long — I’ve been working on my memoir now for a year and a half — for this light bulb to go off in my head. It took me this long to peel back the layers (cue the onion analogy) and see my story for what it really is, and to see myself for who I really am.

Let me tell you, I never expected to confront — or even think about — my fears through this memoir. After all, I’m writing a fun story of adventure travel! But the story arc gets stronger every time I peel back one of those layers. And I’ve peeled back so many by this point that I’m recognizing pieces of myself that I didn’t know existed. I never knew I had grown in this particular way until now. That’s the coolest thing about writing memoir — It has forced me to analyze myself, my motivations and my goals, and helped me learn more about me.

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So next time you sit down to work on your personal essay or life story or even understand the motivations behind a character in your novel, take the whole being-honest approach to the next level. Don’t just ask yourself whether you’re being honest with readers. Think hard about whether you’re being honest with yourself.

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Finding my voice through blogging

Literary agent Nathan Bransford had a great post recently on finding your literary voice.

This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot as I dig into another revision of my travel memoir. One of the elements I’m focusing on is my voice. Rachelle says my voice is still too journalistic, not memoir-y enough. I know she’s right. This is something I’ve struggled with from the beginning, since my writing experience is mostly in news.

No matter what I do, my style will probably always be slightly journalistic, since I’m a journalist. That’s okay. Some of my favorite memoirs have journalistic voices, including Helene Cooper’s The House at Sugar Beach. (My sister tells me Roxana Saberi’s Between Two Worlds does too, though it’s still in my to-read pile, or as an agent at the conference this weekend called it, Guilt Mountain.) But even with that journalistic undertone, I need to let the reader in. I need to help the reader get to know me, to hear my personality in my words.

So whenever I find myself writing stiffly, I remind myself to create like I do on this blog. To write casually. To string words together like I would in a conversation, not like I would for a news story. On this blog, I’ve developed a conversational tone, one that really sounds like me. (Agree? Feel free to shoot me down!) Little bits of my humor come through here. A taste of my personality. Yes, in some ways I still write like a journalist, but on this blog I feel like I’ve found my unique voice.

That’s what needs to come across in my manuscript. Perhaps, during this revision, I should pretend I’m blogging.

The art of italics

I welcomed something new into my life during the last year: italics.

As a journalist, I never used them. There are no italics in news stories. Journalists have to figure out how to emphasize words in other ways. Or not emphasize at all.

So when I began writing my book, italics weren’t in my toolbox. Look at any of my first drafts and you’ll see they’re completely void of italicized words. But writing your first book is like doing anything for the first time: you learn. I thought I read like a writer before, but once I was six months into my project I found myself noticing specific techniques in the books I was reading. Like how the author introduced a character. Or the way he ended a chapter. Or the author’s use of italics.

I remember the first time I noticed italics — I mean really noticed them — and realized that they were helping me better understand the story and feel more connected to the author. I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed. She uses italics beautifully! (For not loving the end of Eat, Pray, Love or most of Committed, I sure do give her a lot of props.) I’m not sure that I can explain why her italics work — I’m not that far along on this thought train. But they do.

If Gilbert could make italics work for her, I figured I should give them a try. I began using them in my writing, both in my blog posts (did you notice the shift?) and in my manuscript. And it worked! They help me come across as sarcastic or funny. Using italics feels good — like I’m cracking a window and letting my voice shimmy through. They help me sound like me.

Italics, of course, have one major pitfall: they’re easy to overuse. (I may already have fallen into that category here by trying to demonstrate how I use them.) I still don’t like the idea of italicizing more than one consecutive sentence. And I’m not a fan of using them to show what someone’s thinking — though they’re used that way all the time. I like my italics in small doses. Sprinkled into the copy.

Do you feel comfortable using italics in your writing? What makes them work — or fail? Can you think of any examples of authors who use them well?

Feedback YOU can use to edit your manuscript

Before I get to the meat of this post, some good news: I’m almost done* with my last round of revisions. That’s right, my LAST* round!

I don’t want to say my manuscript will be complete by the end of the month, because we all know I never meet my self-imposed deadlines. I’m giving myself no deadline — I repeat, NO DEADLINE — for this last revision. But it’s moving even faster than I expected, probably because I love revising. Love it, love it, LOVE IT! Everything’s there, and all I have to do is make it better.

Anyhow. What’d you come here for? Oh yes, feedback YOU can use. The five awesome people who read my book had great suggestions for improvement, and as I’ve implemented their advice, I’ve realized that these ideas might help YOU, too. This constructive criticism is general enough and important enough that it could probably apply to your manuscript. So as you’re editing, keep these suggestions in mind.

Here’s what my readers suggested:

Add more ME. More reflection, more introspection. More analysis rather than simple reporting, as we’d say in the news biz. This was my favorite feedback, because I think I’d held back on this without even realizing it. Yes, I put lots of my own ideas and reflection in the manuscript — that’s what a memoir is about — but I needed someone to tell me that it worked. I worried the reader wouldn’t care or would get bored if I related too many things to my own life. But my guinea pig readers said — unanimously — that these were their favorite parts of the book. So I’m adding more! More of those embarrassing moments we all love to read about but hate to reveal. More me.

Make sure the tone of the beginning of the book matches the rest. This sounds obvious, but it’s something I struggled with for a while, letting my voice shine in the first two chapters. Why? Because I was trying too hard. Because I know how important the beginning of the book is to hook the reader, the agent, the publisher. As a result, the tone of my first two chapters didn’t match the rest of the book. It wasn’t as funny or as conversational. It needed more of what I wrote about above: more me.

Strengthen your themes. The first section of my book jumps around a lot in terms of location, since I’m backpacking through a lot of countries. One way to make it feel more linear is to strengthen my themes, to tie it all together with my “follow your dream”‘ mantra. So I’m beefing that up.

Set up your triumphs. There are a few scenes in the manuscript where I overcome something big. (Hey, if I give you all the details, you won’t buy the book!) My readers loved these parts. But if the scenes were set up better, they said, they’d be even more powerful. How do I do that? Again, it comes back to the more me suggestion. The better the reader feels like they know me, they more they’ll understand and relate to those triumphs.

Make sure your dialogue is conversational. Some of my dialogue, particularly at the beginning of the book, sounded like I was trying too hard to convey information. Fixing this gave me a chance to nix some unnecessary dialogue tags, too, which is so therapeutic.

Cut the boring parts. I’ve said this before, so it’s not new to me. Cutting and trimming makes every manuscript better! And yet, there were a few parts I had left in because I wasn’t sure whether to take them out. Turns out if you think you think a certain part might be choppable (yes, I’m inventing the word “choppable” here), it probably is.

Hopefully these suggestions will help you as much as they’ve helped me!

*Last round until I seek out a literary agent. Done as in the best I can make it. We all know an agent and publisher will probably want me to revise more.

Writing for twenty-seven readers

Every once in a while I come across a piece of writing advice that really resonates with me. And when I reviewed Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed last week, I forgot to mention that she had one of these bits in her book.

In Gilbert’s prologue, she writes about her difficulties writing Committed, how she ditched her first attempt at a manuscript and started from scratch. She writes:

Ultimately I discovered that the only way I could write again at all was to vastly limit — at least in my own imagination — the number of people I was writing for. So I started completely over. And I did not write this version of Committed for millions of readers. Instead, I wrote it for exactly twenty-seven readers.

She goes on to name those twenty-seven readers, all female friends, relatives and neighbors. As I was reading those names, I realized that I use this technique, too — subconsciously. And I should start using it consciously.

Who do I write for? Not twenty-seven people. Sometimes I pretend I’m writing my book for just one person: a close friend named AJ. (Now that I’m writing this post, I recall Stephen King mentioning something similar in On Writing, how he writes his books with one person in mind, his wife.)

Why AJ? She knows how to tell a good story (like me, she has journalism in her blood). She’s got an attention span that does my writing good — I can imagine her getting super excited about the riveting parts of my book, but yawning and skimming over more boring sections (when I picture her getting bored, I cut). But the main reason I write for AJ is because I know she’ll never laugh at me. She wants to read about my feelings, secrets and embarrassing moments, and she’ll like the book more because of those details. Even when it’s hard for me to reveal personal thoughts to the millions of people who will read my book (hey, you never know), I feel comfortable sharing them with AJ. And so I write for her.

This strategy could work for any genre, but it’s particularly useful for memoir because it helps the writer be honest — utterly honest. The world isn’t going to read the book. Just your friends. No biggie. No pressure. Just be honest. And writing with an honest voice is so important in memoir.

Who do you write for?

Reading this will make you a better writer

Every week I read the New York Times’ Modern Love column. Not because it’s about love (although that helps). I read it because it’s often a good story. Occasionally it’s written really well. And since a different contributor writes the column each week, it always has a different voice.

In other words, reading this column is not only enjoyable, it makes me a better writer.

This week falls into that occasionally category — it’s written very well. This woman’s words are simply pasted together beautifully. And to top it all off, she tells a great story, mixing background into a scene in a way I’ve grown to appreciate since I started writing my book.

But the best part — the reason I’m sharing this story with you — is that I’m betting each and every one of you will relate to it, particularly the last paragraph. And that’s what good writing is about. It’s about telling an awesome story (check), pasting your words together beautifully (check) and weaving together something that will make the reader say, “Wow, I totally get that.” (Score!)

Read it here.


Playing Hide ‘n Seek With Literary Voice

Everyone agrees a writer’s voice — or lack thereof — can make or break a manuscript.

But what is literary voice? And how do you improve something that’s so hard to define?

Voice is one of those things you recognize when you see it. It’s what a reader refers to when she says, “I really like the way this is written, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why.” It’s writing style and tone, a reflection of the writer’s personality.

When I first started writing this travel memoir six months ago, I had trouble getting words down on paper, even though I was following an outline. It wasn’t until later, when my writing began to flow, that I realized what had stood in my way: I hadn’t found my voice. As one of my fellow newspaper friends likes to say, it was buried under years of inverted pyramids.

The best newspaper reporters write with subtle voice. But most of us trade in voice for objectivity, straight talk, low word counts and meeting deadlines. For me, realizing my voice was missing wasn’t enough to make it reappear. It took practice to let it shine naturally through my writing again.

So how did I find it? Partly through blogging. When I write for a blog, my style is rather casual, sometimes funny, showing slivers of my personality. That’s why keeping a travel blog was so great for my book. Sure, the blog provided content that I’m now using in the book, but writing it also helped me escape my strict reporter mentality and embrace writing with voice. My blog writing isn’t perfect — I often rushed to write posts, hoping the African Internet connection would hold up — but it has personality. (Still not sure what I’m talking about? This post about marriage proposals in Cameroon is a good example.)

What I’m suggesting here is that blogging can improve your literary voice. But what if you don’t have any voice to begin with? Is this something a writer can learn?

Perhaps, as Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen suggests, writers should focus more on freeing their voice rather than learning to write with one. She and Holly Lisle both offer ideas about how to develop personality in writing.

At a critique group meeting recently, a fellow writer commented that she could hear my voice in my chapter. To her it was a small compliment. To me, a show of achievement, how much I’ve improved.

The truth is, I can hear it, too. This week, I revisited a chapter I wrote months ago, and I was surprised to see how obviously it lacked my voice that saturates chapters I wrote more recently. Now I’m in the process of going back through that chapter and inserting my voice, not only to improve the writing but also to make it match the personality of the rest of the book.

What’s literary voice to you? How do you work to improve it?

Books on writing memoir

As a journalist in a newsroom, I never worried about how to write. I just did it. I put words on my computer screen to meet a deadline.

But memoir, in full-book form, is a different game. One of the ways I’ve adjusted is by reading books on the craft of writing. So during the last few months, I’ve asked writers and literary agents, through online forums, to recommend books on craft. They’ve repeated some of the same titles again and again. Several are specific to writing memoir, while others apply to any genre.

Here’s what’s on my reading list:

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott (Just picked this one up from the library.)

Stein on Writing by Sol Stein

Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer

The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events by Peter Rubie (I can recommend this one.)

On Writing Well by William Zinsser

Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington

Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir by William Zinsser

The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing: How to Transform Memories into Meaningful Stories by Sharon Lipppincott

Can you add any books to this list?

Sex? Redacted.

While working on my travel memoir this weekend, I wrote this paragraph:

He softly kissed the corner of my mouth, then my jawline, then inched toward my ear, where he began whispering sweet nothings. At least, I assumed they were sweet nothings – his French words weren’t clear enough for me to understand.

Then I thought to myself: Oh my God, my parents are going to read this!

Mom and Dad, don’t be surprised if your copy includes entire paragraphs of blacked-out text.

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