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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Memoir tip: lose the play-by-play

Feedback is hard to come by during the query process, as I explained in a post last week.

Several agents rejected my manuscript after reading sample chapters or even the entire project, but most of them didn’t say why. Actually, perhaps I should rephrase that. Not many of them offered a helpful why. Several said the project wasn’t right for them, or that they liked it but didn’t love it. I have no doubt that they were being honest, but those comments left me in the dark about what I could do to improve the manuscript.

I did, however, get a few gems of feedback that I’m now using to revise. One comment in particular really resonated with me, made me think, she’s so right, I can improve that. And I want to share it here because I think it might help you, too.

This agent said something simple: that my manuscript read too much like a report home and not enough like a story.

Bam. That was it. One sentence. It hit home, made me think about my project in a new way. From the beginning I’d struggled with what to leave out, a challenge that stumps a lot of would-be memoirists. For some reason, this agent’s feedback helped me see that I could leave out even more of the day-by-day reportage. (Agents, see what a difference one line of feedback makes for us writers? We appreciate every little bit!)

It can be difficult to prevent memoirs — particularly travel memoirs that take place not over a lifetime but over a set period of months or years — to sound like, “I did this, then I did this, and then I did this.” How do you avoid that? I’m not exactly sure. I know it has something to do with focusing on the story rather than what happens every day, as this agent pointed out. And I think it also has to do with leaving out details that don’t propel the story forward. We’ve talked about that here before, that if a scene doesn’t contribute to your theme and story arc, leave it out. Even if it’s your favorite scene. Even if it moves forward your chronology, or moves the reader to your next destination. We don’t need that day-by-day play-by-play. Cut it! Snip, snip, snip.

Sven Birkets, author of The Art of Time in Memoir (worth reading), says I’m not the only writer who struggles with losing the play-by-play:

Writers just starting to work with memoir often have a real difficulty with this crucial distinction between event sequence and story. The impulse to tell sequentially works with gravity-like force, generating structures that sag from the tedium of “and then… and then…” recounting and produce dense thickets of ostensibly relevant information. The writers get the dreaded feeling that everything belongs, that important moments only make sense when all the facts have been presented.

[snip]

Not only is the sequential approach a chore for the writer, but it’s often a deadly bore for the reader. The point is story, not chronology, and in memoir the story all but requires the dramatic ordering that hindsight affords. The question is not what happened when, but what, for the writer, was the path of realization.

Since receiving this feedback, I’ve read a handful of memoirs, and with each book I’ve paid close attention to how the author eliminated “the first day we did this, the next day we did that” and created a story. Two memoirs I think do this particularly well: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and The Lunatic Express.

Does anyone else struggle with this in their writing? How do you overcome it?

Talking about tense: past vs. present

It occurred to me this week while revising: Would my story feel more alive if I wrote in present tense?

I wrote my manuscript in past tense without giving it a thought. That’s the tense I’m used to from my journalism background, the kind that comes easy to me.

But I’m reading Mary MorrisThe River Queen, and it’s in present tense. That discovery prompted me to go through my bookshelf of travel memoirs to see what tense those authors wrote in. (I’d done this once before, but now that I’m farther along with my own writing process, it has more meaning.)

Turns out the jury is split. Eat, Pray, Love and Tales of a Female Nomad are written in present tense, as is Under the Tuscan Sun. But Somebody’s Heart is Burning, The Great Railway Baazar and The Lunatic Express are all written in past tense. So is another book by Morris, Nothing To Declare, which makes me wonder: why did she choose past tense for one travel memoir and present for another? (I’ll send this to her and see if she might answer in the comments.)

I remember reading Eat, Pray, Love for the first time and feeling like the present tense was slightly awkward, but perhaps that’s because the types of books I read — mostly narrative nonfiction — are usually written in past tense. Now I’m looking at her book again and wondering whether that present tense helps the reader feel like she’s on Gilbert’s journey with her right here and now.

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So now I’m asking you: What works best for you as a reader? What tense do you prefer to write in?

Querying your memoir: manuscript or proposal?

So you’re writing a memoir. Should you complete your manuscript before approaching agents? Or query with only a proposal?

I’ve touched on this topic here and here and here, but it comes up so often in the memoir-writing community — and there’s so little advice available online — that it’s time I addressed it outright.

Here’s why this is even an issue:

Writers working on nonfiction projects often query literary agents before they’ve written the entire manuscript. That’s because agents sometimes sell nonfiction based on a proposal, a summary document that includes an overview of the book and author, a promotion plan and sample chapters.

Fiction works differently. Because the saleability of a novel depends heavily on the quality of the writing in addition to the idea, most agents prefer new fiction writers complete the manuscript before querying.

Memoir — that lawless genre that refuses to be put in a box — falls somewhere in between. It’s nonfiction, of course, a true story. But whether it sells depends on how the story is told, which makes it similar to fiction.

For that reason, most literary agents recommend completing the manuscript before querying, like you’d do for fiction. Even then you sometimes need a proposal, too.

But in practice, a good number of agents seem to take on memoir clients based only on their proposal. How do I know this? Because I talk with a lot of memoirists, and most of the ones I know who are represented by an agent established that relationship before they’d written their entire manuscript. In some cases the agent found them through their blog or magazine article. Other writers successfully queried with only a proposal, and their agent picked them out of the slush pile.

What’s the lesson here? There’s no right answer. You’ve got to do what’s right for you.

Me? I decided long ago to write my entire manuscript before querying, partly so I could pitch my best product rather than one that was still evolving, and also because I thought more agents might consider me that way. To cover all my bases, I also wrote a kick-ass proposal (in first person, since my manuscript is in first person). I want to give agents every possible reason to represent me.

If, however, your idea is particularly timely or you’ve got a great platform or there’s some other reason your story will stand out, you might consider querying with only a proposal. Whether or not that’s acceptable depends largely on the agent you’re querying, so check out their submission guidelines, as well as what other writers have written about them online.

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What do y’all think? If you’ve already been through the query process, which approach did you take — an did it work? If you’ve yet to query, will you wait until you’ve completed your manuscript or have a go with your proposal?

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Mark your calendar: Twitter chat with author Dani Shapiro

Are you reading Dani Shapiro‘s new memoir, Devotion?

I am! I am! Had to buy it after interviewing Dani earlier this month. Partly because I wished I had a book club to discuss it with, I asked Dani if she’d be interested in visiting a vitual book club, through a Twitter chat. She agreed!

Details:

When: Sunday, February 21

Time: 8 – 9 p.m. EST

Where: Twitter! Use #Devotion to chime in.

How: Never chatted before on Twitter? Check out this post about how to participate in a Twitter chat. I recommend using Tweetchat.

Bring questions for Dani! We’ll introduce her and then open it up to readers. And bring friends, too!

TRANSCRIPT: Miss the chat? Read the transcript!

Using themes to stay focused (& the importance of Post-its)

I keep a yellow Post-it note behind my computer. It reads:

*Why you should follow your dream*
Appreciate what you have
Value of solo travel

You can probably tell what these three phrases have in common: they’re themes in my book.

Why you should follow your dream gets asterisks because it’s the main theme. I’m writing about taking a leap in life, and I hope my story will inspire readers to do what they’ve always wanted to do, whether or not it involves travel. I want to help people realize that if I could leave a job I loved to backpack solo, they can make their dream happen, too.

I keep the Post-it on my desk to remind myself just how important these themes are to my book. More important than the premise (woman backpacks solo through Africa). More important than the story (which I ain’t giving away just yet). (And if you don’t know the difference between your book’s premise and story, here’s a blog post from Writer’s Digest to help you figure it out.)

My themes keep me on track. Whenever I start to feel frustrated or lost in my manuscript, I check out my Post-it. Is the scene I’m working on helping to advance one of those ideas? How can I use this part of the book to strengthen a theme?

Notice that none of my themes are really about me. Yes, my travel memoir is about my experiences in Africa. But although memoir is the story of an individual, it’s never solely about the author. Memoir is about something bigger than the author. It’s about resonating with readers. And how do you resonate with readers? With your themes.

If you had a Post-it on your desk, what would it say?

Discovering how to tell the story

Author Dani Shapiro said something in Monday’s interview that struck a chord with me:

The art of memoir isn’t in discovering what happened, but rather, in how to tell the story.

If she’d told me this before I wrote my memoir, I wouldn’t have believed her. Memoir is largely about recounting what happened during a life span. In my case, my travel memoir recounts my experiences over a six-month period. How many ways are there to write about what happened during those six months?

But as I moved forward with this project, the more I wrote and revised, I watched my book turn into something I didn’t expect. The premise — a woman traveling solo through Africa — hasn’t changed; it’s still what I envisioned from the beginning. But where it begins, how it ends and the parts I decided to leave out — most of that was unexpected. I knew what happened, but I didn’t know how I would write the story. I had to get it down on paper to see where it took me.

I remember walking in the woods with a writer named Andrew during my residency at Hambidge. He told me that he had sat in front of his computer the night before to rewrite a chapter, and his character did something he didn’t expect. The surprise had something to do with death — the character had died one way in the first few drafts, and then, suddenly, it seemed he wanted to die differently.

This was all fine and dandy, but Andrew was writing fiction. That will never happen to me, I thought. I’m writing memoir. I always know where the story’s going.

But the next morning — the very next morning — it happened. I typed on my keyboard, trying to figure out how my second chapter would begin, and out spewed a scene that I’d never considered including in my book. It’s about my sister and I, looking at a map of Africa in her apartment, the first time I told her exactly where I planned to go. “What if you get malaria again?” she asked, reminding me of my bout with the illness during my first trip to Cameroon.

That scene works. It still opens Chapter Two. (Although I can’t promise an editor won’t nix it along the way.) And I had no idea it would be part of my manuscript.

Other things reveal themselves through memoir, too — things that are bigger and more important than a scene. While writing this book, I’ve made connections, had realizations and drawn conclusions about my trip, the people I met and myself, ideas I never would have come up with had I not taken the time to reflect with purpose.

Writing a memoir is a journey of self-discovery. You may already know what happened, but in discovering how to tell the story, you’ll also discover pieces of yourself.

What have you discovered through your writing?