If it’s good enough for me, it’s good enough for a memoir

If you wish to write what you know, or the story of part of your life, you must come to grips with the fact that your life is not a page turner. What is well written memoir for you, may not be interesting to the general public. However, a person who lives with edge of the seat excitement often doesn’t have time to reflect enough and write the story of their own life.

Therefore, you have to be an excellent writer to satisfy readers with an examination of a more mundane life. How do you determine if your writing is excellent enough to carry your memoir? For me there are four major traits of good writing.

  1. The first characteristic is original content. You will be telling a story that is probably not unique. But what you have to say should not be frequently heard. If your situation is a common one, it helps to regard it from a unique point of view.
  2. Another important item is a recognizable goal or problem to be solved in the account of your life. There is no reason for it to be given away in the first few pages. However, the narrative needs to work towards a definite resolution. The author should follow the path to this goal through diversions and detours. If the action keeps looping around it should form a spiral that shifts to another level with each revolution rather than becoming a flat circle.
  3. Good writing needs a touch of reality. This would seem to be a requirement for a memoir, but I’ve read ones that dwell on only the most fantastic events, and sometimes embellish these to keep the excitement going. At that point the characters no longer possess a touch of reality. As a reader, I need to understand the characters, their motives, and their struggles.
  4. Even in prose, I am attracted by the music of words. I enjoy sentences that play with repetition and variation in a poetic style. Sentences that are not what I’ve heard often but are still comprehensible. Is your world depicted in unusual phrases? Is it shown in a manner that the reader can envision? Good writing should flow with a kind of beauty and play with language.

Be aware that what draws in one reader is often over the head of another. So, when you write your memoir do it both for yourself and the readers searching for a book that is not ordinary and may not be like their own life. However, it should be a book with a very real life of its own. The quality of the ideas and content is what makes or breaks a piece of writing for me.

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Should I write what I know?

According to commonly given advice, the popularity of a memoir rests on the fame of a person writing it. However, the argument against “writing what you know” is often refuted by an excellent rebuttal in the form of a well written memoir about a mostly ordinary life.

Before embarking on this kind of book you are supposed to ask “How unique and interesting are my life experiences?” Recently there have been a number of memoirs and memoir-based movies recounting childhoods filled with the threats of danger in an environment of political persecution or a dysfunctional family. I have found that this doesn’t guarantee a good book. I’ve watched memoir based films, such as Persepolis based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi and Moonlight based on an unpublished semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Although these were interesting films at points, there was no resolution at the end. Each main character experienced suffering as they grew older but seemed to remain immature and without goals. The end of the character arc did not exist, which left me dissatisfied.

Instead one should probably ask “How good am I at learning lessons from my own experiences?” People can suffer innocently due to the actions of others, or suffer due to their own selfish behavior. A memoir must acknowledge both of these causes. Good examples of this are Educated, an account by Tara Westover the daughter of survivalist Mormons, and Children of the Land, detailing the life of a Mexican immigrant family by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Sometimes I did feel like I waded through extensive minor details of the ordinary parts of their lives. However, as I continued reading I saw each of these memoirs was heading somewhere. I kept reading to find out what would happen and the details took on their own life.

Most importantly, you need to distill the story of your life to have plot with a conflict and a resolution. Often it is not just the story of your life, but of your family’s life, too. So, a story that is only a lurid string of dirty secrets is not a good idea. You must describe your upbringing creatively, honestly and with consideration for those around you. I should feel like I am there beside you. However, I should not sense that you are trying to force me to see things from your viewpoint.

That is the real challenge of writing what you know.

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Making criticism constructive

Using bad writing advice as gatekeeping to keep some people outside of writing circles seemed like a strange accusation to me. It was not something that I considered before, but as I continued to read the article, I recognized behavior which I had witnessed…

A group leader, one with more experience at least in their area, provided a critique on a submission that was not perfect. However, following the advice would push the piece of writing in the wrong direction. A heart wrenching memoir writer would be redirected to add a science fiction touch to make it more entertaining and less poignant. The reviewer would insist a direct explanation be part of a mystery piece in which the reader should be sifting through clues. The other oddity occurred if a “non-friend” offered a comment that was useful. It was often labeled as “not worth paying attention to.”

There are different motives for the negative comments received from others, both in formal critiques and casual discussions. When listening to my critics, I should consider which of the following is true.

1. My work lacks quality in a certain area that needs to be fixed. Critics may note the problem or may give suggestions for fixing the problem. Although providing that kind of specific advice rubs some people the wrong way, it is often still worth hearing. I may not use the fix suggested but it does help me understand the problem which was detected.

2. My work contains a particular verb tense, part of speech, or common word which a famous author has eschewed. The critic often informs me of this as a show of knowledge. Of course, no one could disagree with a best-selling author, could they? Actually, a person could easily do this. I don’t write with the same voice, or in the same genre, or for the same audience. Breaking this prohibition may actually make my work better. I may rewrite per suggestion, but I do not destroy the original. I can come back and compare these a week later with a clear head to see which is the best.

3. The critic does not like my personality and they connect what I write with me. The odd part is that I am not my main character in ninety percent of my stories. I consider my own life not as interesting as other’s. The comments may result in incorrect conclusions because the intention is not to make sense. I recall when a person called my logic-driven female character unlikeable (because they disliked me) and then explained the character showed lack of self-esteem, when the opposite was true. However, there is no reason to tell the person that, as it won’t make them like me any better.

4. The critic disagrees with the ideas and values embodied in my work. Artistic work always reveals the author’s values, even when the writing is not didactic. The actual ethics may never be mentioned, but this critic frequently insisting on changes for things that could be written either way. Others have their own idea of right and wrong, so I cannot force them to believe as I do. Nor do I have to force myself to do as they say.

Do the water on a duck’s back routine. Just smile and nod, and let the comments roll off. However, when the last two types of criticism occurs to others, it helps to give them the encouragement to take criticism that is constructive and leave the other kind behind.

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Your darlings may not deserve to die

When Arthur Quiller-Couch lectured on the art of writing at Cambridge in 1914, he uttered a phrase repeated frequently among authors today.

Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.[i]

This phrase has been transformed into, “kill your babies” or “kill your darlings” by authors more famous than him. Few aspiring writers today would pay attention to his advice if it had not been repeated by these people. But, this almost forgotten author and academic lecturer still deserves the recognition for originating it. Although Quiller-Couch was a prolific writer in his day, the transcript of his Cambridge lectures is one of his few books that is still in print. If you desire to read his brand of fiction, you will have to hunt down used copies.

I’ve heard many authors interpret this phrase as referring to writers who cling to their creations as if it were their child. The writer is told to sacrifice the most excellent part if it doesn’t serve to further the story. However, as most authors aren’t reading Quiller-Couch currently, do we really know what he meant by “Murder your darlings?” If you look at this phrase in context you will find he criticized a writing style which contained “extraneous ornament.” He described it as inauthentic, like a man who hires someone else to write an exquisite love letter for him. His point was that beautiful and expansive writing was not necessarily good writing.

If you want to understand Quiller-Couch’s advice, look at the lush descriptive writing of Pat Conroy’s novels The Great Santini and Prince of Tides. Now, compare Conroy’s work to the sparse, lean prose found in the works of Ernest Hemingway and the more recent author, Tove Jansson. Aspiring authors should look at their own work critically. But they don’t need to rip their best work from the novel. It should remain. However, they need to remember that the ornate writing style prized at the beginning of the twentieth century is not widely valued among readers today.

Do recent authors who repeat their own version of “Murder your darlings” mean the same thing? Let’s look at the context of their comments. Stephen King insists that writers:

Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.[ii]

This does not refer to the use of an ornamental or expansive writing style. Stephen King’s work actually contains many digressions and doesn’t always emulate the direct style preferred by Quiller-Couch. In this context the quote seems to deal with authors who hold their work above criticism.

King apparently disapproves of amateur authors’ egotistical attachment to their “scribbling.” Maybe it also concerns their reluctance to dispose of well written characters who need to die to keep the story traumatic (at least if you write horror). However, it should not be aimed at the amateur author but the professional one. Unfortunately, those who can write what they want based on sheer reputation must be careful about producing florid or meandering writing and actually having it published. Few people are willing to mention such faults to a famous author.

[i] Quiller-Couch, Arthur. On the Art of Writing, Lectures delivered in the University of Cambridge 1913-1914

[ii] King, Stephen. On Writing (A Memoir of the Craft) 2000

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Showing too much

Carefully polishing my piece for a writing critique, I attempted to picture every detail of a tense scene. Two indigenous boys scavenged through a village ravaged by mudslides, only to encounter unscrupulous men searching for labors to conscript. The boys hid in a half collapsed structure. The large one was strong enough to move rubble, but he had to depend on the small one. The small one was smart enough to cover their tracks, but fearful of burrowing into confined spaces. Of course, I did not tell any of this. All of the tension was shown through description of characters movements, facial expressions and snippets of conversation.

 The self-appointed expert in this critique liked to harp on “adding more details” and “showing not telling.” What was his response to my work?  “This is confusing, and I cannot figure out what is going on. Can you rewrite this and explain what is happening?” He wanted the events of the story to be told and not shown.

 Does any of this sound familiar? When a person says, “show don’t tell,” what exactly does that mean? Writing is very abstract in itself, so providing this kind of instruction requires bringing the abstract to a more concrete level. When authors give examples of this kind of writing they often demonstrate a fifty/fifty approach. They intersperse detailed descriptions and realistic conversation with exposition that simply tells the reader what has occurred.

Writers who show more than tell lose the ability to convey subtlety in their work. Often a reader will not comprehend what is occurring when a character shuffles his feet in the dust or makes a gagging noise. For actions to be easily interpreted they have to be dramatic enough for some readers to pick up the meaning. Facial expressions must be exaggerated to ensure that the reader detects the happiness, anger, or fear. However, characters should be able to display subtle emotions, too—anxiety, restlessness or boredom. Showing lets us know what a character does; telling makes us aware of intentions and interior feelings.

A novel that is pure showing, such as La Jalousie by Alain Robbe-Grillet, describes every detail: the light through the blinds, the scent of the lilacs, the indolent movements of the people outside. It takes keen perception to realize that the unnamed viewpoint character who perceives all of this may be imagining part of it. Many readers will simply give up as they are unable to deduce what is occurring.

The majority of readers really want an author to tell them what is happening but include enough description of a scene so that they feel they are present. “Show not tell” should be used for key scenes. However, when a scene seems to drag on and become boring, this may be a sign that you should truncate this information and simply tell the reader what has occurred. Telling takes far fewer words than showing. As you write you have to learn the balance between explaining what is happening and displaying events through description of sensory details.

When unsure, write the scene in question in two manners—one that shows the action, and one that tells what is happening. As you review your writing, choose the one that works best.

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Did I Miss Something?

Decades ago, in a high school English classroom, one of my better students sat reading Bear Island, a thriller by Alistair MacLean. He asked out loud, “Why can’t we read books like this rather than the stuff we read in class?” This particular class focused on American literature, including short stories and novels by  Hawthorne, Twain, Poe, Steinbeck, O’Connor and Bradbury.

I could have responded “Alistair MacLean is Scottish.” However, a number of American authors had written works in the same vein, readable thrillers with action beyond the probable. Instead I replied, “Bear Island is fine to read when you choose books on your own. But, we read works from different periods and viewpoints that require you to think and interpret the story. That way you gain a greater understanding.”

What more did the students want? They could choose what they liked during independent reading. (Well, that wasn’t completely true as I had to remove a copy of Hustler Magazine that one student was attempting to pass to classmates.)

Decades later, when I am no longer teaching high school, preference in reading is still a concern. This is especially true when I expose my writing to critiques from others. I’m not necessary bothered by the fastidious followers of rules of punctuation and usage. Although, die-hard supporters of certain ones can be irritating.

For example, I’ve had critiques in which one person changed the ending punctuation within the quotes from commas to periods, and another changed them back. My decision was to use the comma when the dialog tag used a verb referring to speech, and a period when the verb described the character’s action. A problem occurred when punctuating “You wish you were my boyfriend,” she giggled. One person critiquing assumed a human either giggles or speaks. I’ve taught high school and seen adolescent girls combine these frequently.

I can take that kind of critique. However, feedback from a person who reads a few kinds of easily consumable writing creates the greatest challenge. For example, if the person were a fan of Alistair MacLean, they might accept the flat characters (macho warriors and cardboard females) and impossible plots in exchange for the high melodrama and exotic settings. But, if this person read about war from Stephen Crane’s or Ishmael Beah’s viewpoint, the result would be confusion. The action is not all laid out simply for them to digest.

Words that tell what is occurring in an edge-of-the-seat exiting manner are more acceptable than showing through description. The high school students didn’t know how to point out what confused them in The Red Badge of Courage. Perhaps most disturbing to them was the lack of clear cut heroes and villains. Complex characters and a story shown through descriptive passages require readers exert more effort to understand.

Reading MacLean’s account of war is entertaining; reading Crane’s is thought provoking. During a critique the hardest comments to deal with are “I don’t understand what is happening!” or “Did I miss something?” If the person doesn’t choose to read that which requires a lot of thought for interpretation, is it worth the effort, or the possibility of insult, to explain it?

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Don’t ignore response to a tragedy

Anyone who sees or hears a tragedy cannot remain untouched by it. They can attempt to stifle or ignore it, but there will be subtle signs. When that tragedy strikes a person directly, the signs will be even greater, and stress will continue to crop up over an extended period of time. However, some authors forget that.

Their character loses a close friend, a dear family member, or their great love. Yet, after this heart-breaking moment the bereft character returns to carrying on as usual within a short time. The shock should not evaporate so quickly. Understanding how to describe the signs of distress will keep the disaster fresh in the mind of the reader.

Characters should respond to the calamity with mental, emotional, and/or physical signs. The one that they exhibit the most is often a challenge to the area of their greatest strength. The mind can play games on a character after a loss. Difficulty concentrating, making mistakes completing simple tasks, being easily startled, or having flash backs or nightmares in which they “relive” the event all point to the seriousness of the tragedy.

The character should show emotions other than the typical sadness or frequent tears. The result might be anger and rage which often flare up after the loss of a loved one. Although anger is frequently used as a male response, do not overlook it in a female. Conversely denial and guilt can crop up in either. After a time of mourning, numbness and feelings of detachment or vulnerability often occur. Having the character’s daily life interrupted by these errant emotions remind us that the loss was severe in a more potent way than dialogue discussing it.

Describing a character’s physiological response is one of the keys to keeping a reader on edge. These are the outward signs of heartbreak:

  • A racing heart
  • Unexplained bodily aches
  • Confusion
  • Insomnia
  • Constant exhaustion
  • Appetite changes (no appetite or binging on comfort foods)
  • Excessive alcohol and drug use

Actually, stress is exhibited by any excessive, compulsive action, such as constant social media scrolling, TV binge watching, always being preoccupied with a book, or listening to podcasts and music because the silence is unbearable. However, the drug and alcohol use compound the problem quickly. It a sign of a pain that creates another challenge for that person to overcome.

Now, if exhibiting these signs seems to create a weak character, you must remember that not exhibiting any of them results in a heartless character.

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Pulling new genres out of the hat

The nineteenth century witnessed the birth of the sensation novel. It drew on melodramatic writing about the insane and the criminal elements in society as well as gothic and romantic genres. Romance and realism, which had been opposing types of literature, were combined in this new genre. Common elements of the sensation novel were characters unaware of their true identity, important letters misdirected, a character resorting to disguises, a heroine in physical danger, and an aristocratic villain. However, sensation novels often contain elements that were allegorical and abstract reflecting social anxieties in uncertain Victorian times. If this piques your interest, you might enjoy The Woman in White and Lady Audley’s Secret.

Sensation novels illustrate how a new style of storytelling is replicated until it becomes genre. Writing in a genre typically means following rules and conventions. In return for submitting to these the author is allowed to make particular illogical leaps. For example, romance novels often assume that soul mates exist so finding that person is the key. There may not be a need to come up with astounding actions to demonstrate how much one person loves another. Rather love is measured by amount of desires and longing for the other. Romance writing is also based on the supposition that there is a turning point beyond which the couple will remain in love forever. However, romance can be one of the more restrictive genres.

Perhaps, I have an idea for a romance novel, but the pair is not going to meet on the first page and there will not be love at first sight. Instead each of them will be distracted by other possible lovers. After my main pair finally join together and the romance really begins, one of them will stray from the relationship. My novel no longer fits the requirements of a romance.

So, I play with the idea of changing the genre. I add trappings of new technology and place the story on another planet for a sci-fi space opera. Maybe, I research a past period with societal rules similar to this one. Then, I rewrite my novel into an historical one. Or, I just leave it in the current time frame and make the story a bit more introspective concerning the role of a woman in society. Now, I have created a piece of women’s fiction. Finally, I could condense the time frame and redo the major characters as seventeen-years-olds. Often, this is all that is needed to transform a novel into a YA book.

However, I could be brave and leave the book as is. If enough similar works are written, it will morph its own new genre.

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The key to polite introductions

The first chapter described a woman, now alone, returning to a memory-loaded place. As I read I could easily absorb the environment and still have the mental capacity to consider her conflicted feelings. Would her journey bring healing or more heartache? She waivered as she viewed the wild landscape that held deep meaning for the person no longer there. In the second chapter I was tossed in the middle of six conspirators; their names and relationship were listed in one long sentence. As I read their argumentative dialog, my head spun. Was it really important to the plot that I recall who said what?  

The author who knows their own creations intimately will struggle to view them with the new eyes of a reader. This task is more than difficult. It is impossible. So, here are some techniques to consider with introducing new characters.

  1. Introduce each character by having an existing character observe them or talk with them. What is seen or heard should at least hint why the new character is important to the plot.
  2. If the new character is already known by the protagonist or antagonist, they can discuss the character before their appearance. This conversation should imply, if not outright state, how the new person fits into the conflict.
  3. Bring in new characters as a pair. It is not much harder to absorb two new, closely connected people than it is to remember one new character. This will also allow you to have dialog between the two instantly.
  4. Pace the introduction of characters. Give each one their own five hundred to a thousand words before dragging in another person that needs to be added to the reader’s memory. Use these words wisely and avoid describing a list of attributes and achievements. Instead stay in the present and show the character’s current actions and attitudes.

Does slowing the pace of the story so that the reader has time to become acquainted with each new character’s personality bother you as an author? Then, consider the possibility that some of your characters should be combined. It’s your best option if they are contributing to the same goal in the plot. Having one of your characters meld with another will take careful attention as you clean up the story to remove all traces of the deleted person.

If you find the need to combine characters in scenes that you have already written, their dialog and actions become truncated. If they are the only two in the scene, spoken words will be translated into internal thoughts. You may go through this procedure more than once, if you have really overloaded the story with characters. But, the other option is to have reader’s head spinning, which makes it hard to read–hard enough that they may simply close the book and never open it again.

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Remember me?

In the attempt to make characters memorable, some authors make them unreal. Sometimes bizarre to the point of being incomprehensible, and sometimes too talented. The complexities of real humans might overwhelm some readers but that is exactly where to start. It is more difficult to make up your character’s personality than to copy it from someone that you know. Combining two similar acquaintances will also work. Basing characters on two or three real people helps to prevent possible trouble if people recognize themselves in your work, and realize that they have been depicted in a less than flattering light.

However, all characters need obvious flaws or areas of incompetence. When people (fictional or real) make mistakes and get things wrong, readers are more likely to remember them. Weaknesses make characters memorable. Flaws are frequently more unique than strengths. Positive traits tend to be similar; such as intelligence, idealism, beauty and physical strength. Another “flaw,” which may not be seen as one, is a trait that prevents a character from fitting into society. This provides an instant conflict if the difference is well-defined. The inability to fit in must create real confrontations that result in suffering to keep the readers wondering how your character will cope with this challenge.

The unlikely strengths are the ones that gain attention. For example, let’s look at the intelligent but uneducated person. They will have gaps in their knowledge, and obvious ones due to a deficit in schooling. The intelligent but uneducated person won’t use fancy words, historical references, or literary allusions. They will be able to describe what they have observed in simple terms and make reasonable guesses as to the cause for events. They’ll avoid making superficial comments without real meaning. Their higher intelligence will allow them to group different distinctions together, or separate ones that other people lump into a single pile.

Finally, memorable characters have an arc and change over time. For example, they may have to deal with a particular flaw of rudeness or arrogance, or overcome a fear and develop a new strength. Even characters whose arc is negative, so they spiral downward rather than grow, are remembered more than characters who do not change at all.

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