Thursday, October 23, 2014

Do you know where you’re going with your memoir?

Do you know how your memoir will end?

Throughout the writing of your story, build toward your ending.

As a memoirist, you record more than the details of what happened.  You excavate a story deeper and higher and wider than the immediate story. You uncover a story larger than the story on the surface.

You dig it out—in pieces if you must—but you dig it out.

You build toward the end—where you hold in your hand the treasure you unearthed.

That means that while you write your rough draft, you need at least a vague idea of what that treasure is so you can aim for your ending.

If you can’t figure out what your higher, wider, deeper, larger story is, if you can’t grasp the specifics of the treasure you’re mining, take a couple of minutes to read Dig it out, in pieces if you must.

Give yourself time to ponder and pray about what God has for you within your story. Over time, you can dig through the layers and find that treasure.

Later, when it comes time to craft and polish your ending, refuse to write something anemic and trite with the message that “Everyone lived happily ever after.”

Instead, write a compelling, satisfying end, an end that shows how far you came, how you rose above obstacles, and how you changed.

Write your memoir’s ending in a way that gives readers hope, courage, faith, tenacity, and inspiration for living.  

In one way or another say, “This is the most important lesson I want to leave with you.”

In your finale, take stock of life lessons you learned.

Sum up principles you’ve learned.

Notice how Henri Nouwen summarizes sweeping, vast concepts:

"In the life of a God-centered person, sorrow and joy can exist together. That isn't easy to understand, but when we think about some of our deepest life experiences. . .great sorrow and joy are often seen to be parts of the same experience."

And this from Nouwen:

"Often we discover the joy in the midst of the sorrow. I remember the most painful times in my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope. I dare even to say: 'My grief was the place where I found my joy.'"

Use your memoir’s ending to clarify your message for readers:

What do you want them to feel 
when they finish your memoir?

How do you want them to think 
as a result of reading your memoir?

What do you want them to do—
how do you want them to live—
because they read your memoir?

Write your memoir 
not because of who you are, not because you’re so great, 
but because of who God is.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tuesday Tidbit: You must be very careful

Here's your Tuesday Tidbit:
15 seconds of inspiration:

Why should you go to all the effort it takes
to write your memoir?

Because it's a holy work.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Dig it out, in pieces if you must

When you write a memoir, you record more than the details of what happened.

You peel off layers,
dig deep,
You mine gems buried in layers.
You hunt down the inner, more significant story.

When you write a memoir, after you’ve mined those hidden gems and you’re holding them in your hands, get out a magnifying glass:
piece together,

As a memoirist, search for ways your experience changed you and made you who you are today.

You might find answers to questions that eluded you in the past—or maybe you’ll make peace with questions that still have no answers.

Search for lessons you learned, for patterns (positive or negative) you recognize now, looking back.

What did you need to learn the hard way?
What do you know now that you didn’t then?
How was God involved?
What wisdom did you gain from the experience?
How did the experience make you a better person?

Unraveling can be difficult. I’m writing my second memoir and recognize anew how mysterious the process can be and that this memoir stuff can be painful. We unearth things about ourselves we hadn’t realized before, and the discoveries can mature us and strengthen our faith for all that comes our way in the future.

I appreciate a quote in Kathy Pooler’s recent blog post:

“As a writer,
I dig to get to the meat of the troubling,
sensitive issues.
I often find it’s a tough nut to crack,
so I take out my nut cracking tools.
I apply pressure
and squeeze to pop open the topic.
I probe to separate kernels of truth
from their protective shells.
Sometimes I lift the fruit whole
and intact from its hiding place,
but more often I dig it out in pieces.”

What are your nut-cracking tools?

What pressure can you apply to extract those kernels of truth?

What will you do to pop open your story?

Squeeze, probe, and dig it out,
in pieces if you must,
but dig it out!

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tuesday Tidbit: Excellent resources for your memoir’s opening

Many thanks to Pamela Jane Bell, Matilda Butler, and Kendra Bonnett for hosting the First Paragraph Contest over at Women’s Memoirs, and for honoring me with a Silver award.

We all can benefit from studying those paragraphs, so click over to last week's Silver winners, and this week’s Gold winners, just announced today. You’ll learn good tips for crafting your own smashing first paragraph.

P.S. I’ve changed my working title to Winded and Scruffy and Brimming with Tales.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

More tips for using dialogue in your memoir

Pssst. Did you miss Tuesday’s post?
My entry in the First Paragraph contest
received the Silver Winner award!
(Click on Silver Winner.)

Let us know how your entry does!

And now, let’s look at the best way to use dialogue in your memoir:

Needless dialogue can bore readers and tempt them to put down your memoir.

When we speak to one another, we make small talk that’s not important to include as dialogue (at least in most cases). That’s needless dialogue. For example:

“Hey, how ya doin’?”

“Great. How ‘bout you? You survivin’ this storm OK?”

Unless chit-chat holds significance for your story, eliminate it.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes people make the same point several times in a short conversation? For example, a person might say something like this two or three times in a given snippet: “The doctor said you need to go to the ER if your fever doesn’t break by midnight.”

Sometimes writers include repetitious phrases to emphasize urgency or emotion, but otherwise dialogue will be better without repetitions.

Use dialogue to show how each person in the conversation has a unique personality, emotions, and distinct, perhaps conflicting, goals to achieve. Dialogue can reveal the dynamics between those in the discussion, round out characters’ personalities, and convey what’s important to each of them.

Include body language. Usually people are in motion when they speak and those activities carry a message and reveal a person’s personality.

When a man is impatient, waiting for his wife to get dressed so they can go out, does he stand by the door and toss his car keys up and down, up and down? Is he sending her a coded message?

Does she habitually refuse to make eye contact when a certain topic comes up? What does she look at instead? Does she cross her arms over her chest? Does she swallow hard? Does she start a sentence she can’t finish? Does she change the subject?

Bottom line: Use brief but necessary dialogue—dialogue that will enhance your story’s message, bring main characters to life, and increase the reader’s comprehension—and include body language.

Related post:

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tuesday Tidbit: First Paragraph contest winners

Here’s today’s Tuesday Tidbit,
your 15 seconds of inspiration:

Do you remember the First Paragraph contest over at Women’s Memoirs? Pamela Jane Bell, Kendra Bonnett, and Matilda Butler invited us to submit one paragraph—an opening paragraph—for their contest.

Did you enter the contest? I hope so! I did.

This morning I was pleased to see my entry listed as one of the Silver Winners. (Click on Silver Winners to read it.)

At that link you’ll find a list of the other Silver Winners and their paragraphs, and you’ll see what worked and what didn’t. Studying those entries, and reading Pamela’s feedback, helped me grow as a writer, and you’ll find the reading of them informative, too.

Related posts:

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Tips for using dialogue in your memoir

Dialogue, written well, can accomplish your most important goals: It can bring readers into your stories.

Dialogue, written well, can acquaint readers with your memoir’s key people. It can entice readers to keep reading. 

Dialogue can enhance emotions within a scene. It can add spark and pizzazz—or grief, or terror.

Dialogue can keep stories going—it can provide momentum.

Dialogue can share information readers need to know.

In journalism, writers must compose dialogue that’s true and accurate: It must be what a person really said. Readers count on true reporting.

In memoir, however, readers understand that conversations took place decades ago and that now, all these years later, you can’t write dialogue with complete accuracy, and that’s OK.

"Most readers are smart enough to figure out that
dialogue isn't word-for-word accuracy;
however, they assume the author
strives to be as close to the truth as possible."

As a memoirist, your job is to reconstruct past conversations with integrity. Avoid distortions. Instead, write dialogue that makes your characters convey correct messages. Create dialogue that represents your characters truthfully.

Honest, accurate dialogue is important because your readers need to trust you. If they can’t trust your dialogue, how can they trust the rest of your message?

Create dialogue that sounds like the person speaking. Each of us has our own unique speaking style. Take time to pin down the distinct speaking style of each of your key characters.

Recently I read Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet about a Chinese family in 1940s Seattle. Author Jamie Ford created well-defined speaking styles for his characters.

The oldest generation in this story, Henry’s parents, spoke like this:

“No more. Only speak you American.” 

“...You one big smile this morning, Henry.…”

“...You liking you school now? Hah?”

“...I send you to school. I negotiate your way—into a special school. I do this for you. A top white school. And what happens? Instead of studying you're making eyes with this Japanese girl. Japanese!"

“...You must. You have no choice. This is decided.”

Henry and his wife always imagined their son Marty would marry a Chinese girl, but….

Dad, I’m engaged.… She’s inside, Pops. I want you to meet her.’

“… [Henry] heard a click as the door opened behind him. A young woman poked her head out, then stepped out smiling. She had long blond hair, and cool blue eyes—the kind Henry called Irish eyes.

You must be Marty’s father! … I’m Samantha, I’ve been dying to meet you.’ She stepped past his hand and threw her arms around him.…”

Here’s a later conversation:

But what about afterwards?’ she asked. ‘After you were grown up—after he passed away? Did you feel like all bets were off and you could run wild if you wanted to? Man, I would. Being told I can’t have something would just drive me crazy, even if I didn’t know what to do with it in the first place.’”

The characters’ speaking styles are distinct.

As you draft your memoir, identify the speaking style of each key character:

If you’re writing a story about a cowboy from Texas, make him sound like a cowboy from Texas.

How would an orphan from Uganda speak? An introverted pathologist? An idealistic, energetic first-year teacher? A person whose mother just died?

If your character is grumpy, make her sound grumpy.

How would a charming lady speak? A surfer with a dry sense of humor? A shy teenager? A domineering car salesman?

How would a spinster from Boston speak? A man from Waco? A woman from Toronto? A person with only an eighth-grade education? A CEO with PhD after her name?

Experiment with dialogue in your memoir’s stories. Set your manuscript aside for a few days, then read it again.

Does it convey the speaker’s intended message?

Read your dialogue aloud. Is it stiff? Too formal or informal? Or does it sound natural?