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.


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?

Conference takeaway: It’s all about how you tell the story

I had an Ah-Ha! Moment at the Compleat Biographers Conference this weekend. (Yes, there might be a biography in my future. But I’m not ready to share details yet.)

We’ve all been told a million times that the success of a book depends on how the author tells the story. It doesn’t depend on the plot, although a good plot helps. It doesn’t depend on the topic, although a popular topic helps, too. It depends on your voice, your story arc and the narrative you create.

Biography is a perfect example of that. Why? Because some biographies have been written dozens of times. How many authors have written about Lincoln, Jane Austen or Marilyn Monroe? A lot. But each one found a new way to tell the story.

This is something I didn’t really understand when I started writing my travel memoir. I thought my book’s premise — what it’s like to backpack solo through Africa as a woman — would interest readers and draw an audience. But having a good premise isn’t enough. It’s got to be an awesome story. One with a beginning, middle and end. One with character growth. As literary agent Susan Rabiner said during one of the panels, “Nobody wants a history of a life. Nobody wants you aggregating. They want an authorial voice.” In other words, it’s all about what you can bring to the table — not some cool thing that Lincoln did. It’s all about how you tell the story.

Other tips I learned at the conference:

Be creative with your book proposal. Author Robert Kanigel suggested giving yourself freedom and creativity in format, and Rabiner backed him up on this. Yes, every proposal needs certain components. But your main task is to explain why you want to write the book, and you can do that in a unique way. Kanigel once wrote a proposal in the form of a letter. Whether or not a proposal is in letter format when you submit, Rabiner said starting out that way can help authors who feel intimidated by the proposal-writing process, whose writing is stiff or lacking authentic voice. A letter that explains the merits of the book, written to your agent or your publisher like she’s your best friend, can help you find your groove.

Add this to your reading list. Editor Helen Atsma suggested The Lost City of Z as a refreshing way to tell a biographical tale. Anybody read this one?

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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?

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?

Stephen King’s On Writing

I just finished reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A memoir of the craft.

Since I started my travel memoir nearly a year ago, I’ve read quite a few books on writing. So far this is my favorite.

Why? Because King offers practical advice. Instead of emphasizing that writing is different for every writer, he tells us what works for him and what might work for us.

Full disclosure: I skipped the first third of King’s book, the part about his life, and went right to the sections on writing. I’d never read one of his books before — I’m not a horror fan — so I wasn’t much interested in learning about his life. But the writing parts were so well done and offered enough enticing glimpses into his personality that I may re-read from the beginning.

A few things I learned from King:

~ When you start writing, it’s okay not to know how the book will read when you finish. Start with an idea — a situation, King calls it — and uncover the story like a fossil. Symbolism in particular should not be plotted; if something is meant to be symbolic, he says, you’ll notice when you revise and polish till it shines.

“Once your basic story is on paper,” he writes, “you need to think about what it means and enrich your following drafts with your conclusions.”

While he’s talking primarily about fiction, this advice also can apply to nonfiction. I thought I knew how my travel memoir would turn out; after all, I experienced it. But ideas, themes and realizations have become clearer through the writing process.

~ Think about your story as a What If? What if a woman decided to backpack alone through Africa? What would happen? And since I’m writing nonfiction, what did happen?

~ 2nd draft = 1st draft – 10 percent. I love this formula partly because it reaffirms my own revision process, which has included cutting about ten percent of my first draft.

~ It can’t hurt to hear certain advice a second, third, fourth time. Don’t use adverbs. To write well, read a lot. Write every day. Description is a matter of how-to and how-much-to; don’t overdo it. Even though I’ve heard all this advice before, King’s explanations of why they apply, as well as his specific examples, were helpful.

(Want more? Read excerpts from the book here.)

I was also shocked to read advice that King attributed to novelist Elmore Leonard: Leave out the boring parts. These exact words came out of my mouth three months ago when I was talking with a writer at my Hambidge residency. I was trying to explain how I would cut word from the first draft of my too-long travel memoir, and when I said that, the phrase sounded awkward, not well-thought out. But the writer friend (or, more accurately, best-selling author friend) told me the following day that he’d thought a lot about those words, that they would change how he revised of his own book. Little did I know they’d already been said and attributed.

Any fans of On Writing out there? Care to share what you learned?

What I wish I knew before I started writing a book

Writing this book is a learning process, even more than I expected. There are quite a few major things I wish I had understood before I began, and I’m sure more will arise as I continue through the editing and publishing process.

As I prepare to begin my writing residency at Hambidge next week, as I enter my eighth month of this project, it seems like a good time to reflect on the big picture, what I’ve learned so far. So here goes:

1. I need to write my entire memoir before looking for an agent. When I started this process, I planned to query with a proposal and sample chapters, as is required for most non-fiction books. But memoir, it turns out, is not like most non-fiction. Selling memoir is like selling fiction. Gotta write it all first, particularly because I’m a first-time author. (Although it’s worth noting here that some memoirists are able to sell based on proposal and sample chapters.)

But you know what? I’m okay with that. The more I write, the better my book becomes. I’m confident that when I go to sell this baby, it’s going to be better than what I would have offered initially.

2. Writing a book is grueling. You think that’s obvious, huh? Of course I didn’t think it would be easy. I’m familiar with the dedication required to write and work hard every day; I’m a journalist, after all. But this is even harder than I expected, partly because it’s such a huge project. On some days (okay, on a lot of days), it feels daunting and overwhelming. Even when I make progress, I still have so far to go. It’s like the marathon course that keeps on going and going. Actually, it’s like the D.C. Marathon around mile 20, when you hit that damn uphill two-mile bridge where there are no spectators and your running partner is four miles behind you.

3. Writing a memoir is a lot like writing fiction. Yeah, it’s nonfiction, which is what I’m good at. All my stories are true. But they have to be told with dialogue, description, scene-setting, pace, characters — a variety of literary devices I didn’t use as a journalist. Writing this way takes practice.

4. Writing is lonely. Never in a million years did I expect to miss going to work every day. But I do. I miss wearing heels! There’s no one to talk to in my home office. I’ve done my best to seek out other writers, friends who offer feedback and help me think out the next step in my book or in my life. But when it comes down to it, at least at this stage of the book-writing game, it’s really just me and the screen.

These realizations will fade from my memory as this type of writing becomes normal for me, which is why I want to document them. If I write another book down the road, I’ll know more what to expect, and I doubt it will feel as overwhelming, or as lonely, or as grueling.

Writers: what do you wish you knew before embarking on your first project?

(Writerly) Lessons I Learned from Journalism

I whine a lot about how writing news on deadline stifled my creativity.

But as I transition from newspaper reporter to author, I’m realizing that journalism taught me a handful of lessons that apply to writing a book, reminders that can benefit even non-journos.

Do readers care? If my manuscript came across my reporter’s desk as a press release, would I throw it into the trash? Hopefully I’d pitch the idea to my editor and he’d get excited about putting it on page one. But first he’d ask: Is there an audience for this? How can you craft this story so people care?

Deadlines work. There’s no such thing as writer’s block when your story is scheduled to go to press in an hour. Create deadlines for yourself, both short- and long-term, and meet them. It’s as simple as that. If that means settling for imperfection, so be it. Lucky for us, self-imposed manuscript deadlines come with a perk: revisions are not only allowed, they’re encouraged.

Don’t bury the lead. A reporter’s intro has got to be interesting, offering at least a glimpse of the meat of the story, or readers will move onto the next headline. All we get is one sentence — saving the hook for the third paragraph is useless. So work on turning all your beginnings — the beginning of the book, beginning of each chapter, beginning of each scene — into fabulous leads. In a novel, yeah, you can save some of the juicy stuff for later. But if your beginning isn’t engaging enough to suck me in, you’ve lost me to the obituary page.

Quotes have to really say something. All those sentence fragments the mayor spewed about the Deed Restriction Task Force — it’s boring. Reporters only have room for one quote anyhow, so they pick the one that’s the most compelling. Of course, in an 80,000-word manuscript, there’s space for more dialogue. But that doesn’t mean anything and everything your character could say should be included. Cut the part about the task force. Quotes that don’t move the story along get kicked to the curb. And that brings me to…

Cutting ain’t all bad. Newspaper reporters rarely have as much space for a story as they’d like. Even when my editor offered a respectable length, I’d wake up in the morning and find half the story had been cut overnight to make room for some tale about a dog that could juggle. In truth, sometimes the part that was cut just wasn’t necessary. So ask yourself, while revising your manuscript: If you had to cut something, what would it be? Now look again — Is the story actually better without it?

Oops, I’d better go. My imaginary editor is reading this over my shoulder, asking when it’s gonna be done.

Me? Quirky? Not according to Anne Lamott

I had an epiphany recently while reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a book on writing that several author friends recommended.

Putting my book together in pieces, imagining my end product but watching it morph into something different, all-in-all feeling like I don’t know exactly what I’m doing… These feelings are all normal!

Well, according to Anne, anyway. And I suppose since this is my first book, I’ve got some leeway.

Lamott writes:

Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow.

Until now, I thought my way of writing was quirky. Since I’m writing the book out of order — albeit following an outline — I allow myself to write whatever scene I feel like on a particular day. My book is in pieces, and I’m pasting them together. But this goes along well with Lamott’s advice to think about a project as a series of short assignments:

Say to yourself in the kindest possible way, Look, honey, all we’re going to do for now is to write a description of the river at sunrise, or the young child swimming in the pool at the club, or the first time the man sees the woman he will marry. That’s all we are going to do for now.

She also gives writers permission to write what she calls “shitty first drafts.” No, even better, she encourages writers to produce at less than par the first time around:

The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.

Oh my gosh! I thought while reading this. No one will see my first draft! It can be horrible and no one will ever know!

She continues:

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Thank you, Anne Lamott, for making me feel a bit less abnormal and a little more like an emerging author.

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?

Start your Monday with a Kick in the Butt

An author wrote to me last week with this advice: “There’s no substitute for finding your voice and writing brilliantly.”

While he seemed to think my travel memoir had potential, he told me, very frankly, that I was spending too much energy figuring out the publishing industry when I should be focusing on writing a fabulous book.

This author, who I connected with online (another reason writers should use Twitter), gave me permission to post snippets of his advice here, but I’m going to leave him anonymous because, well, since this isn’t a newspaper story, I can. He wrote:

I’ve become dismayed by the presence of the advice industry on Twitter and the Tweeters’ corresponding blogs. I find that much of it presents the whole business as if there’s some secret formula or key that will unlock the world of publishing success. And it preys on the dreams and aspirations of unpublished writers, most of whom will never be published. I don’t think that advice is helpful, and in most cases it is harmful. In your case, write a compelling book with an original voice and you will find an agent and get it published.


There’s no great mystery to publishing.

But I need to learn about the industry to get my book published, I argued. I need to know how to best present my manuscript, through a query letter, a proposal, whatever, to convince an agent to represent me. His response?

Agents almost never find clients at conferences or from the slush pile of submissions. No guidelines or tips on writing cover letters are going to help you get a good agent… Agents get clients usually by seeking them out. They see an article somewhere written by a young promising writer and they track the writer down. Or they get a referral from an editor, current client, or writer they respect. Most good agents — and we’re talking about a handful of agencies here — do not find clients in the query pile. It happens, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Take it or leave it — This is only one guy’s opinion (I warned you this would be a kick in the butt). He wasn’t ruthless enough to leave me hanging hopeless. He offered to look at my manuscript when it’s complete, and if he likes it, pass it along to his agent, just like an established author did for him years ago. He continued:

Only two things matter. Have something to say. Say it with a clear and distinct voice. Doesn’t matter if it’s memoir, fiction or nonfiction. This isn’t easy, of course. You’re writing about experiences in five or six different countries, but there needs to be one clear idea that drives your narrative. That central idea can be you, or it can be an idea about development or health or something Africa-related. But that’s the key. You need to be able to tell me succinctly what your book is about.

Harsh? Yes. Just what I need right now to keep me motivated? You bet.