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?

Advertisements

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?

Continue reading

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.