February 18, 2022 § 10 Comments
By Debbie Hagan
Imagine sitting at your computer for hours, working on your memoir, confident that you’ve made real progress, then a gremlin sneaks in and whispers in your ear: That isn’t a story. What a terrible beginning. You’re wasting your time. No one will read this.
You could give up or you could turn to Allison K Williams’ Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book.
When I thumb through my copy’s dog-eared pages, I’ll most always find that Williams has something encouraging to say, such as,
If you’re at the ‘I can believe I even started this crazy project stage, revive your enthusiasm by picking a smaller element from the Technical Draft, like dialogue tags or chapter endings. Work through those challenges to feel some progress and get back into the writing groove.
I do this, and, sure enough, my gremlin slumps out the door.
Williams is more than a desktop therapist. She hands you a blueprint to build your memoir from the ground up…in seven drafts. Maybe that sounds like a lot, but chances are you’re going to write seven drafts (at least) anyway. Why not follow a proven plan?
Williams has worked with thousands of writers as a book and writing coach (some resulting in deals with the Big-Five publishers). She also runs Rebirth Your Book and Rebirth Your Writing retreats (in various locations around the world) and is a Brevity staffer.
In Seven Drafts, she writes as if she has pulled up a seat beside you, guiding you as you create a narrative arc, capture readers’ attention and hold it until the end.
Step one is the “Vomit Draft,” which Hemingway famously referred to as the shitty first draft. “Get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled rite,” Williams writes.
Whether you’re meeting Williams for the first time in the pages of this book or you’ve encountered her at a conference, workshop, or online seminar, you’ll discover she’s quick-witted, self-deprecating, and always your cheerleader. In this first draft (whatever you wish to call it), the goal is to express all your ideas without editing, shaping, carving beautiful sentences, drawing plot lines, or pruning. The goal is to get down all the raw material so you can shape it into a story.
Next, Williams helps you work through building your story. In the Story Draft you’ll address key questions: What does the protagonist want? What’s stopping them from succeeding? What happens if the protagonist does not succeed? Williams writes:
Good memoir shares many elements with good fiction: a compelling protagonist, on an interesting journey past powerful obstacles and/or against a fully realized villain, who experiences permanent change within herself, while changing her world.
Next the Character Draft. Here, you’ll develop your protagonist into a well-rounded, intriguing character who engages readers’ imagination and compels them to read on. If you’re successful, readers will be riveted, and they’ll be compelled to turn the page to see if the protagonist succeeds.
Williams reminds us, “To write a truthful memoir, we must speculate—or ask—what happened when we were offstage. We must seek out what we don’t know.” In other words, you’ll probably need to do research. Not only do you need to have your facts straight, but it more information can help you add depth and detail to your characters and plot.
Four more steps: Technical Draft; Personal Copy Edit; Friend Read; and Editor Read. Plus, there’s a chapter on publishing.
In these 342 pages, Williams gives clear, succinct advice with diagrams and tips that work for both memoirists and novelists.
You may ask, isn’t there a Berlin wall between fiction and nonfiction?
Yes…and no. Whether you’re telling your own story or inventing one, storytelling requires plot, inciting events, drama, and resolution. A memoir can be slow and ponderous like a long poem…or it can be a page-turner that engrosses the reader that it’s hard to put down. Think about Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, Tara Westover’s Educated, and Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life.
Memoirs and fiction both rely on good storytelling: a compelling protagonist who’s on an interesting journey, facing obstacles and/or a villain, and experiencing major change.
Allison addresses fiction and nonfiction alike in writing about what you don’t know:
Writing what we want to know can be even more powerful than writing what we already know. Research beyond a novelist’s experience opens doors for interesting characters and new plot twists. For memoirists, genuinely considering a question like Why did my mother treat me like that? can allow us to resolve the past as well as creating a complex, nuanced picture of our personal history.
She also helps when the gremlins try to convince you, No one wants to read your story. Others have already written about it. Not true, Williams says. “It’s not originality that makes an idea compelling, but the specific expression of that idea,” she writes. Every person’s story evolves into a unique quest to find meaning and understanding. That’s why you can write on a topic that others have written about, and yours is different.
Some writers say, But I want to write what I want to write the way I want to write it. I’ve done that once before. This time, I’m enlisting Williams, through her book, as my Sherpa. She’s traveled this way before and, from what I can see, knows the way.
Debbie Hagan is book reviews editor for Brevity, and a writer and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Hyperallergic, Critical Read, River Teeth, Superstition Review, Pleiades, and elsewhere. Her essays have appeared in various anthologies, including Fearless: Women’s Journeys to Self-Empowerment.
September 28, 2021 § 6 Comments
By Lisa Mae DeMasi
“Do what you love” may be the most overused advice in the career-improvement world. Countless superstar entrepreneurs’ TEDx talks and thought leaders’ bestselling books have quoted Maya Angelou: “pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off you.” But that’s not always possible in practice.
I know this firsthand. Once upon a time I turned my back on a half-finished MBA and a corporate job’s maddening pace and rigid hierarchy, escaping to do what I loved: writing.
The act of quitting made me subversive, and that alone fueled creative expression. I mapped out chapters, content. Figured I’d have the memoir written in six months, employ an editor, find an agent, become a bestseller, Oprah would call, the whole bit.
Four years later I found myself gazing into my monitor, not knowing whether to put a period at the end of the sentence or keep going with a comma. I’d lost my home in foreclosure, gone bankrupt, written three hundred thousand words, revised the body of work four times. And while slurping away at my eighty-seventh cosmo, I understood what I was really missing. A mentor. Someone who’d gone before, knew how to shape art into something saleable and would come with a tribe of like-minded potential collaborators. I needed someone to touch what the poet Mary Oliver called the “wild silky” part of myself and, finally, make it palatable to the world.
Hemingway had Stein, Beethoven had Neefe. We mere mortals need mentors, too—and we can hire them. But there are thousands of writing coaches out there: some are competent, some are lousy, some are soul crushers.
How do you find your coach?
- Go with the gut: does the coach’s work style and personality jibe with your own? Do her testimonials feel obligatory and ingenuine, or honest and objective? Does she “guarantee she’ll help you write a bestseller”—or provide thorough analysis and work with you to tighten up the manuscript? Listen to your intuition. There are many fantastic coaches with integrity and know-how—don’t get stuck with empty promises.
- She’s part of your tribe: if you see a potential mentor’s work in a publication you love, or discover her in a group on social media with whom you share a vibe, chances are you have similar taste. I found my coach through my Reiki teacher. My coach had helped a fellow Reiki student get an agent and a book deal with Random House.
- She has street cred and success: my coach had testimonials from people who had published, made writing careers, and gotten bylines with top media outlets. She was also successful in her own right—an internationally acclaimed author who’d made her living writing. I knew she could trailblaze a path.
- She gets you, every single part of you: my coach works in the Gateless method, which fuses creative brain science, industry-savvy skills and tools, and radical nurturing to bring domain-changing work into the world. In this methodology, a coach leans into your greatest strengths, the energy of the writing, and the power of your work in the world to manifest your singular genius in the form of a book. Through this method, my coach helps all of me rather than just the part of me working on my craft. This might not be your style at all! Some writers crave nurturing, others want firm deadlines. Make sure your coach isn’t just about deliverables, numbers, list-building, ideal clients and great gigs—unless that’s what you want.
- It doesn’t happen overnight: Anyone who promises the world in thirty days isn’t helping you make lasting change. It took me an eleven-year journey through the trials and tribulations of a writer’s life—finding the time to write in between putting food on the table—to get to the key of mentorship. Something magical did happen with my coach, and while it felt like it happened overnight, it’s too deep and long-lasting for that.
Since working with my coach I’ve been shortlisted for prizes, published in the top online media and literary journals, and polished my memoir to pitch literary agents. But more than that, I understand that often, those who fail at doing what they loved just didn’t have the guidance they needed to learn how to soar.
What will you do today to obtain the guidance you need to succeed?
Lisa Mae DeMasi is pitching Calamity Becomes Me to literary agents, her kick-in-the-ass memoir about survival, told with insight, reflection and laugh out loud moments. She also publishes essays on the writing life and women who inspire her. Her work has been featured in Creative Nonfiction’s Tiny Truths, Horse Network, Writer Advice, WOW! Women on Writing!, Shark Reef, and the anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.