October 20, 2020 § 15 Comments
It’s the key question for all memoirists: Why should the reader care? What’s in it for them?
Autobiography and biography have the shortcut of fame. What’s in it for the reader is finding out more about someone they’re already fascinated with. But for those of us not (yet) famous, our memoir must have a takeaway for the reader. Just as we grew and changed in the story itself, our telling of it must grow and change the reader.
What gives the reader a chance for personal growth while reading our self-history?
Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story:
Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.
Biographies recite facts, hopefully told in an interesting way. Memoir creates meaning, and a key technique for creating that meaning is reflection, using the retrospective voice.
The retrospective voice is different from “the past” or “the past tense.” Past-You reacts in the moment, and you show it in action, in a scene, and in whatever tense you’ve chosen for your narrative. Here, in Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson writes about her childhood:
By age seven I realized that there was something wrong with me, and that most children didn’t hyperventilate and throw up when asked to leave the house. My mother called me “quirky.” My teachers whispered “neurotic.” But deep down I knew there was a better word for what I was. Doomed.
There’s thinking in here, yes, but the author is thinking as the child she was, processing her experiences through the reactions of the adults around her at that time. We’re staying in the child’s time period. The narration is simply phrased and focuses on the immediate feelings and reactions of the child. The reader’s engagement is in the humor and pathos of the situation, without commentary from the adult narrator.
Using the retrospective voice, Narrator-You juxtaposes events to create meaning—meaning that brings a sense of shared humanity and realization to the reader.
Jenny Lawson again, later in the book and in her personal timeline:
The skating rink was shuttered and abandoned, the sign filled with empty birds’ nests. The bookstore where I’d met Victor was gone now, and my grandparents’ home sold soon after they died…My sister and I walked through the aftermath of the playground together and I took a small piece of the rubble to remember it by. Now when I pass by the school I look away and remember it the way it was, with the dangerous metal seesaws and merry-go-rounds that eventually disappeared all over America. All that remains of it today is the memory, still echoing in my head, of the sound of my favorite swing, squeaking rustily and comfortingly, over and over, back and forth.
The language isn’t any more complex, but the sentences are longer and contain more images than actions and feelings. There’s a deliberate rhythm in the end of the last line that lingers for the reader, allowing them a moment in their own thoughts of what, for them, has passed.
You can blend the retrospective voice with a past scene, and the contrast is often poignant or funny:
[My mother] gave us a look that my father always seemed to interpret as “How lucky you girls are to have such an adventurous father,” but which I always read as “One of you will probably not survive your father’s enthusiasm. Most likely it will be Lisa, since she’s smaller and can’t run as fast, but she is quite good at hiding in small spaces, so really it’s anyone’s game.” More likely, though, it was something like, “Christ, why won’t someone hurry up and invent Xanax?”
Most of the paragraph is Past-Jenny, but the last sentence is Narrator-Jenny, wryly assessing the moment as her adult self.
Take a look at a memoir you admire. Where is the writer their past self, thinking and feeling and experiencing? Where are they the narrator, making meaning from those moments, maybe even straight-up telling what they know now? And more technically, where has the writer put events and scenes physically next to each other on the page, so that their juxtaposition itself creates meaning for the reader?
Ask those questions of your own work, too. Chances are you’re already using the retrospective voice instinctively; now apply it deliberately. Where do you want the reader to stay with Past-You, reacting directly to the action? Where do you want to share Narrator-You’s discoveries, so that the reader can reflect themselves, feeling the resonance of your words in their own life?
The retrospective voice dances on the edge of being the moral of the story, but allows the reader room to complete the thought themselves. It’s telling just enough. In the main narrative, show them what you did. In the retrospective voice, show them what you know.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Tomorrow, she’s teaching the webinar, Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s just over an hour and a steal at $25. Recording will be available but you must register in advance: sign up here.
October 8, 2020 § 22 Comments
Perhaps your manuscript is as good as you can make it…but you’d like a second opinion. Or maybe you know something isn’t quite clicking…but you’re not sure what. Maybe you’ve heard a fellow writer say, “My editor pointed out issue X and everything fell into place! I still have a lot of work to do, but I know where I’m going.” Maybe you’re getting rejections and you don’t know why your book isn’t landing with agents or publishers.
Most authors reach a draft where they can’t improve their manuscript further without high-level outside input. More thorough or more sophisticated critique than even your best writer friends have time to give. It’s time to call in a big favor…or spend money.
If your literary citizenship has included reading for friends and acquaintances, promoting and reviewing their books, and staying in touch with workshop colleagues and teachers, you may have a free or low-cost reader available. A writer you trust, whose work you believe is more polished than yours. Maybe the classmate who gave the best feedback to everyone else. Someone who doesn’t love everything you write—praise is not useful at this time.
Ask in a way that makes it easy to say no, and that suggests you’re prepared to compensate them appropriately for their expertise.
I don’t know what your schedule is like right now, but do you do manuscript reads? And if so, do you have a regular rate?
They might say, “I’d love to read your work, just send it along,” in which case you send a heartfelt thank-you note and review everything they ever write in as many online locations as you can. Or they’ll quote a price and you can decide if they’re within your budget.
A free or low-cost reader needs your request for feedback to be as specific as possible. You might ask 5-10 questions like, “Does the main character’s emotional journey pay off at the end?” or “Can you please highlight things you think I can cut?”
High-level critique also comes from professional editors. A good editor will help you make your book the best you can write, and much readier for querying, submissions or self-publishing. Unlike your friend doing you a favor, you’ll have a specific due date and a clear scope of work.
If you’ve explored hiring a professional editor, you may have noticed one key element: Good editors are EXPENSIVE. House payment-expensive. International airline ticket-expensive. Sometimes even refundable business class-expensive. Editing is skilled, high-level work that should dramatically increase the sellability of your book, and it costs accordingly.
Editors may bill a set project fee, hourly (with an estimate), or per-word. Some charge per page, but a “standard” page is 250 words so that’s functionally per-word. These prices are usually based on how much time your manuscript needs. Send the cleanest manuscript you can. Pages with fewer typos and grammatical errors take less time; you’ll also get more bang for your buck if the editor spends her time on issues you couldn’t see or fix yourself.
You can also save money on editing by reducing your word count. The more unnecessary words you remove on your own, the less a full edit will cost. Here’s how to slim down your story without losing what’s important:
1) Many memoirs (and novels!) start too late. Send pages 50-75 to someone who hasn’t read the book. Ask what they know about the story and the narrator. Cut those details out of the first 50 pages. Ask what they wish they knew. See if you can move those things out of the first 50 pages and put them in later, but smaller. I’ve had several editorial clients who cut their first 50 pages because the story hadn’t started yet. Especially if it was a big chunk of family history.
2) Send only the first 25 pages (now possibly your revised pages 50-75) for professional editing. Problems at the beginning are almost certainly problems through the whole book. Ask for a list of what to fix, then address those issues in the rest of the book before sending off your entire manuscript. If your memoir is over 85K words, ask specifically about reducing length. (If your manuscript is under 60K, ask what you’re missing that needs to be added in.)
3) Do a Word Cloud (I like Wordle) to see overused words. Remove/substitute as needed.
4) Search for that, very, really, beginning to/began to, starting to/started to, and continued and take out half to two-thirds of each.
Words add up. Developmental edit on an 85K manuscript at 4 cents/word? $3400. Cut 4000 words of extra subplot, 4800 words of excess description and 200 appearances of very and really? You just saved $400.
Before committing to working with a professional or other high-level reader, do as much as you can alone. Join a writing group, trade manuscripts with a writer buddy. Before you send your pages or manuscript, read through one more time. Knowing that feedback is imminent, more issues will stick out. It’s possible you’ll solve your own problem. It’s also possible you’ll still need an edit.
Editing is not a magic cure. Your book still may be unpublishable. Your writing may not be ready. But a good editor will not just polish this book—her feedback will teach you more about writing, and your next book will start at a higher level of craft.
And if what you’re struggling with is structure? Check out my webinar October 21st: Nail Your Memoir Structure by Thinking Like a Novelist. It’s only $25—no matter what your word count is.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. October 21st, she’ll be teaching how to structure a memoir to engage readers, agents and publishers. What’s an “inciting incident” or a “climax” when you’re looking at real life? How to decide what events belong in your book? Suitable for those with an idea, a draft, or a terrifying pile of material, you’ll discover how to tell the right story about the story you need to tell. Sign up here.
September 19, 2020 § 4 Comments
Brevity Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore and Social Media Editor Allison K Williams, author of the forthcoming Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro, discuss the joys and struggles of virtual literary citizenship and how writers can build community, even via webcam and Zoom account.
Tomorrow is the final day for an Early Bird Discount on Rebirth Your Writing: a Publishing and Craft Intensive to be held in mid-October, aimed at helping us keep our writing alive despite the challenges of the current moment. (More details on schedule and registration here.).
Dinty: There are so many changes in our lives due to this pandemic and the necessity of cancelling events and staying home. For writers, that means we aren’t casually bumping into one another at readings or coffee shops, or attending weekend writing seminars at our local Literary Centers. Writing is a lonely enough activity as it is, but it feels a bit lonelier right now. Have you noticed writers building community in new ways?
Allison: I have – I’m actually phoning people to talk at length, which I haven’t done in a long time. I’ve done a couple of Zoom events where participants are randomly sent into breakout rooms for 6-7 minutes, and meet a couple of other people. Each time I think, “This will be awful” and each time I end up being grateful for the connection and sustaining contact with at least one of the other people. I’m also seeing more genuine conversations on Twitter, rather than just dropping cleverness bombs and running away, and on Instagram, where people are asking quite soul-searching questions and having sustained interaction in the comments. So it’s a mix of writers reaching out and hoping someone latches on, and facilitated conversations where a host metaphorically says, “Talk to Susie, you’ll love her!” and it turns out I do.
Dinty: I’ve attended a few Zoom webinars as well, but have also been teaching online, and I will add that from the teacher side of the webcam, the experience is more successful than I ever would have guessed. I was skeptical, in other words, that teaching by Zoom would be anything more than ‘sterile’ or ‘robotic,’ but it has turned out to be the exact opposite. It feels, as you say above, “genuine.” And the participants seem happy to be there, and generous with their insights and comments. Maybe one reason is that so many of us are locked down at home, and we crave more connection. Whatever the reason, I’m pleased with how well it has worked.
Allison: What I love as a teacher is what I’m learning about teaching that I’ll one day take back into the live classroom. Because eye contact doesn’t quite line up, I’m remembering to use people’s names more, and to watch for clues they’d like to talk, even if they’re not ready to signal it. We’re all waiting longer after a comment or question to see who’d like to speak next, and I think that lets each others’ words really sink in, before the next person offers their thoughts. There’s a “performative listening” that for me is translating into deeper actual listening. And both you and I want to build on that, which is why we’re including time for writers to talk to each other, both casually and intentionally, in this thing we’re about to do! Turning on the Zoom room early for “cafe time” where people can bring their coffee, leaving it on through the midday break, and having a couple of sessions where we’re facilitating small-group conversations about their work and their goals. I’m hoping writers will leave with sustained connections and a specific plan for their work. When you’ve got someone to check in on your goals with, even if it’s very low-key, it’s like having a little mastermind.
Dinty: I am ready for this pandemic era to be over, ready to push my way into a crowded restaurant, ready for the next big writers conference with a crowded, noisy lobby and maybe a late-at-night gathering in the hotel bar. But I’m guessing we’ll look back with partial fondness even at this difficult time period, because there is always something. Like you, I think the online camaraderie, the enthusiasm people have brought to these Zoom events, will remain in my memory as a small silver lining to a largely difficult time. Stay well, stay safe, and wear you mask.
More information on the Rebirth Your Writing intensive and the Early Bird Discount can be found at the Rebirth Website.
July 7, 2020 § 12 Comments
One of the most talked-about Modern Love columns is 2009’s “Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear.” Laura Munson’s husband says he doesn’t love her anymore. She says she doesn’t buy it, and spends the summer making a happy life for her kids, her husband welcome to join in if he feels like it. Around Thanksgiving, they repair their marriage.
That’s the end of the story.
The essay went viral. Munson wrote a bestselling memoir. The marriage ended anyway. That’s the end of another story, one she’s told in essays and articles.
Mid-divorce, in a bid to save her beloved Montana farm, Munson conceived of hosting Haven writing retreats. She loves the life she has; she’s just published a novel, Willa’s Grove.
Sometimes what makes a happy ending is waiting another year to see what happens next. Or stopping five pages sooner. Memoirists get to choose. We’re obligated to the truth, as fairly as we can tell it, but we don’t have to tell the whole truth.
Novelists can work out their relationship problems or unfulfilled dreams on the page. They can imagine the closure they’d like to have, forgive characters inspired by people the writer can’t forgive in real life. Memorists are stuck with what actually happened. But like a novel, a memoir must also engage readers in our problem, give them hope that we will survive and fear that we may not, and finish with power and emotional resonance. While many memoirs don’t have happy endings per se, we can still show ourselves making a choice or taking an action that will lead to a positive outcome, and a little of the hopeful aftermath. We can leave readers with the message, I survived this and I wrote a whole book about it—isn’t that amazing?
If you’re having trouble finishing your memoir, you may not have picked the right place to end…or you may not have lived the end of the story yet.
Some writers discover their destination while they’re writing the book. Processing before writing, following the discipline of making one’s story fulfilling for the reader instead of therapy for oneself, is a kind of medicine. Setting down the truth, checking facts, realizing, that happened and it wasn’t great and I’m not crazy to feel bad about it, can be immensely comforting. Controlling the presentation of our experience, organizing words on the page, is validating. Sometimes we change our family’s or friends’ perception of what happened as well as our own. Sometimes we empower ourselves to walk away from harmful situations or cease our own bad behavior.
Sometimes we can even embrace what happened. I really did that thing? What did it feel like? What sensory elements do I remember? What are the best words to make a reader feel what I felt? Our past is a rich trove of information. Every terrible detail we tease out to make a novel deeper, every bad experience we use in a good essay, puts us in control. I’m good with where I am, so I’m okay with how I got here. Taking away past pain would diminish the work I love doing now.
We get to choose that, too.
Looking for your ending?
Maybe you’re in a good place and writing the past has helped you recognize and own it. Terrific! To find the end of your memoir on the page:
- Identify Protagonist-You’s starting point, and what’s wrong with her life at that time and place, or the journey she’s about to begin.
- Figure out where in your personal history you fixed that problem, changed that situation, or completed that journey. Chances are good that’s the end of the story.
- Revise your draft to reflect that dramatic arc. Now that you know the resolution, some scenes and characters will seem more important and others less so. Show the parts important to this resolution; cut down or edit out the things that don’t contribute.
Maybe you’re still living your memoir. You haven’t yet reached the place of achievement or success or peace that makes the past okay. Your story literally hasn’t finished.
- Flip back through your pages. Can you tell Protagonist-You, “Hold on, you can make it, it’s going to get better when X happens”? If you can’t, you’re probably still living the journey. There’s pain and change and release yet to come. Take notes. You’ll be glad to have them when your story ends.
- Meanwhile, take action: what would be a satisfying resolution to your journey?
Write an imaginary final chapter, as if your memoir were a novel. What happens to the protagonist? How has she grown or changed? How is her life different from where she started? Who and what are still in her life? What has been shed or repudiated or forgotten?
- List the specific steps your protagonist chose to move from problem to resolution. Check off any steps you’ve actually taken in your life. What steps remain to earn the satisfying resolution?
- Start carrying out those steps. If they seem insurmountable, enlist a trusted friend, a therapist, or even a writing coach to help you choose the change in your life that will conclude your memoir.
Yes, this is a lot like therapy.
But how much better do you want your life to be? How much do you want to finish your book? What would end your story well?
You really do get to choose.
Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Today on Instagram, she writes about why writing is like circus…and when you’re “good enough.” Click through to read!
June 16, 2020 § 28 Comments
I needed to write about the crazy year I had. Should I keep working on it?
Sometimes I’m a last resort:
I’ve queried 100 agents and nobody wants my book. Should I just self-publish?
The answer is always another question:
What does your book do for the reader?
Memoir already lacks suspense. We lose the novelist’s standby of “will this character make it?” We know you survived—you wrote a book about it. Most of us are not such brilliant writers that our shining prose fascinates regardless of the subject. Most of us are working hard to raise our storytelling skills to the level of the story’s own power, because raw trauma is not enough.
But there’s a shortcut.
Write a book that does something for the reader.
Write the book that beautifully expresses the pain of your addiction, or the trauma of your childhood, or the desperation of your divorce, but revise it to directly help the reader. Beyond “my story is universal.” Beyond “people need to know this situation exists.”
Yes, one of the gifts of memoir is showing readers “you’re not the only one who felt like this.” But unless we are writing National Book Award-level prose, our personal pain is not enough, no matter how honestly we express it. When a promising manuscript veers from story into eulogy, I sometimes howl internally:
…nobody cares about your kid!
…nobody cares about your pet!
…nobody cares about your dead relative!
Readers are sympathetic, but sympathy for a stranger’s problems doesn’t last 285 pages. Transforming your painful (or joyful!) experience into a book that sells means tying your problem directly to the reader’s own experience, using your writing skill and personal credentials. This does not mean writing self-help, but showing specific, actionable steps the reader might be inspired to take.
What does “do something for the reader” look like in practice?
- Medical memoir: My dad died and it was horrifying and Mom was no help at all and here’s how I navigated a medical system designed to rip us off, and what I learned about myself and about Medicare. Also, I’m hilarious.
The reader gets: OMG my parent had funny death stuff too and I felt so bad laughing but it’s OK to laugh, and wow, I don’t have to pay that bill!
- Death of a child memoir: My kid died and it was horrifying and here’s how I lived in a fantasy world where drug abuse didn’t look like my kid, and what I learned. Also, I’m a brilliant writer.
I’m not the only one who missed the signs and I don’t have to feel dumb and guilty because I see why she did too, and wow! That paragraph puts my grief into words!
- Death of a pet memoir: My dog died and it was sad and here’s what I learned about alternative pet medicine, when to stop medical intervention, and how I knew it was time to let her go. Also, I’m a veterinarian with stories about how others knew when to treat their pet or let them go.
I’m not a terrible pet owner for not buying another kidney for Princess, and wow! Now I have specific ways to process my grief without hearing “it’s only a dog”!
- Family memoir: My grandchild is precocious and I taught myself how to talk about climate change and human destructiveness without crushing a child’s spirit. Also, I’m an educator and will fill you with hope.
I don’t have to be a scientist to have an age-appropriate conversation with my six-year-old about human extinction, and wow! I’m a little more hopeful myself!
Take a look at your own manuscript:
- Is the first chapter backstory and exposition because “No one will understand my family if I don’t tell our history”? We are not as unique as we think. That’s why memoir is “universal.” Cut those pages. Get the reader hooked emotionally. Identify your problem that might also be their problem. Fill in backstory later as needed.
- Got more than two pages in a row about how great someone was, or what living with them was like? A eulogy is not a story. Cut to the best paragraph or the most significant gesture. Show them through actions. Put their greatness in context with your problem. My husband was so thoughtful, when I was widowed I didn’t know how to pay the electric bill and here’s how I navigated that. Or, My dog was so amazing I had to learn how to grieve an animal when she died and here’s what I did.
- Is how you tell your story inspiring, hopeful, or educational? Not textbook or self-help, but can readers productively channel your experience to walk away as better people?
H is for Hawk* teaches readers about falconry and processing grief through new experience. Wild inspires taking a physical journey to purge our past. How to Be Black examines American racism through a personal lens, and the lessons are truly absorbed through comedy.
Pour out your love and tragedy and joy in words. Maybe you’ll have a 285-page eulogy. Maybe it’ll be the first draft of a book you sell. For readers, honoring your dead is not enough. Not your dead mom, your dead kid or your dead dog. Write to honor your love and your kin. Revise to do something for the reader.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Follow her on Instagram for writing advice, travel adventures, and workshop and retreat announcements.
*Just FYI, H is for Hawk is on sale right now (4.99 Kindle) if you’ve been meaning to read it, and How to Be Black is free right now with Kindle Unlimited.