Memoir disclaimers might involve murder

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elegy-coverIn the workshops I run for memoirists the question comes up often. How close must I stay to the facts while I tell my story? The answer varies from one memoirist to the next. Dave Eggars (A Heartbreaking Story of Staggering Genius) veers close to fiction. He invents dialogue that he doesn’t remember and built composite characters to represent people from his life.

On the other end of the scale is Lee Gutkind. He’s the father of creative nonfiction and says nothing should ever go onto the page that you cannot document. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up is one of his seminal craft books.

A Top 10 memoir for 2016, J.D. Vance’s A Hillbilly Elegy walks closer to the documentation line. It also includes this report of how he built his story of memories. While he admits he’s changed names (who doesn’t in their memoir?) he adds

This story is, to the best of my recollection, a fully accurate portrait of the world I’ve witnessed. Where possible, I corroborated the details with documentation—report cards, handwritten letters, note on photographs—but I am sure this story is as fallible as any human memory.

He goes on to report how he gave his sister a draft and they talked for 30 minutes about how he’d misplaced an event chronologically. “I left my version in,” he adds, “not because I suspect my sister’s memory is faulty (in fact, I imagine hers is better than mine) but because I think there is something to learn in how I’ve organized the events in my own mind.”

Vance’s book acknowledges he is biased and notes that some family members have attempted homicide, “and a few were successful.” You’ll want to get the details essentially correct about people who see murder as a reasonable response. But I also heard from a writer at the Texas Book Festival whose memoir was full of criminals from the author’s life before prison. “They complained when I left them out of the book,” he said, “and I told them, ‘I’ll get you in the next one.’ ”

Do your best to remember. Don’t leave something important out of your memoirs because you can’t recall it completely. The larger truth is what we hope to witness while we read memoirs.

First Person and Sticky Points of View

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tiefast-767993In a seminar I had with Robert Flynn, a novelist teaching a Writer’s League of Texas course on fiction, he expressed a point of view. That’s as in Point Of View (POV) and how to decide which one to use. Whether it’s first person told with the “I,” or third person that unreels the story with “he” and “she,” all POVs have some downsides to observe.

I include second person in that list of POVs, you rascally innovators. But novels and stories written in second person—”you”—are rare, and for a reason: It’s difficult to get close to this kind of POV, in spite of the imperative tone. One of our workshop’s members recently wrote a full scene in the imperative without so much as a prompt. I applaud his tenacity. It’s not easy to stick with, according to Flynn.

Most debut novels come to the publisher in first person. Flynn believes a first person character needs to be someone you can confide in. Keep in mind that some other character will need to tell your first person narrator’s part of the story — unless they can reflect on themselves in an observer’s manner. The novel The Various Flavors of Coffee (superb book) does this reflection well. The device used is the narrator telling his story from well into the future, prior to the book’s main action. It’s deft and worth a read.

Without this, it’s difficult to get “objective reality” out of a first person POV. You are less likely to see revelations, genuine surprises, about the narrator in a first person story. As in  The Various Flavors of Coffee, your first-person character narrate the story from many years later. However, there’s a moment in the story where the character says the equivalent of “what I was about to do was a series of blunders.” Honesty comes by way of the long view. Other first person aspects:

  • Sometimes first person is too intimate to be comfortable
  • People will believe the central character is the author
  • If the narrator sees himself or herself as someone other than they really are, it can get complicated. (Without giving too much away, however, a certain Chuck Palahniuk novel about a club pulls this off very well.)
  • First person POV relies a lot on supposing, and “it seemed” narration
  • A narrator who’s not involved in the story can lend objectivity. But we’ll want to know as readers why this person is telling the story, if they’re not involved.
  • There’s a loss of suspense by using first person, at least for any story that wants to behave by the tradition of telling a tale from a living person’s POV. There’s some difficulty in reporting one’s own death.
  • First person narration relies on word choices that grow out of the character. While that’s a great way to get to know a character, it does have the potential for limiting the vocabulary in the story.

Writing Books and Movies: Three Critical Distinctions

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A writer asked me this week, “Can I start my novel contest submission from a place other than the beginning chapter of my book?” You can start anywhere. The challenge you meet with any beginning other than the beginning is knowing who is who and where your story stands.

a_jay_shermanUsing a mid-book entry, you must establish character and underscore the theme of a book at an incredible pace. The judges will determine your ability to create characters as part of their scoring. This can be a challenge while starting mid-book. Not necessarily, of course. An author can always color outside the lines of accepted practices.

Think for a little bit, however, about why it’s important to start the sample someplace other than the start. The samples of film stories, trailers, illustrate the distinction in showing your audience your story.

First, a movie trailer may be a cousin to the book sample, but the trailer is edited so you get the essence of the story. If you can do this for a book “writing sample” (the phrase for a passage of a book sent to agents, contests, and editors) then good for you. But movie editing and novel writing have great differences. The phrases that apply here are collages and medleys for movies, and guidebooks and maps for novels. In a book you have to know where you’re at when you begin. You have a legend for a map. It’s not easy to carry a judge’s or reader’s imagination across half the story without a legend up front.

Second, visual storytelling is not the same craft as creating fiction on a page. A movie lets your eyes see settings and your ears hear actors to establish your place in the story. On talk shows, the actors are asked to “set up the clip” we watch. This takes up words to do in a writing sample, words that might help more if they’re used in dramatic, descriptive, evocative writing.

Third, you get more time to establish the magic when you’re writing a movie. Music, colors and lighting, the spoken word: they all splash over your screen in a trailer in a matter of seconds. The theme of the movie, its main questions, often roll toward you in phrases that float across the screen. “What would you do,” it might ask, “when salvation costs you everything?” In books you get this with your jacket-flap or back cover writing. A writing contest gives you a shot at this with a synopsis, if they accept one as part of your entry.

When you’re tempted to start a writing sample in mid-book for a contest, look over the categories on the scoresheet and ask yourself if you can demonstrate competence in each section. If you can see the way, go for it. You’ll probably not be the only person to so this. A judge must understand who is who and where the desires and motives lay in this new land, however.

Although you get about 300 words of synopsis to set up your clip, in the Writers League of Texas Manuscript contest, you’ll work with 2,450 words at most to show your drama. It’s not an impossible constraint to overcome. But choosing first steps in a writing sample is like crossing a stream using steps upon rocks. You find your path starting from the bank where it’s dry. Beginnings give book samples better traction.

Trim out your filters to connect readers

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Some easy writing advice to follow, offered all the time, is show instead of tell. But it takes careful work to remove showing while you remove filter words from your writing. These are words that make a story less vivid and make the writer more obvious.

coffee-924948_1280You don’t want the latter to happen. We tell stories, but we don’t want our readers to focus on us as storytellers. Write memoirs or essays if you want to be seen while you tell the story. Fiction has several key elements, and none of them give writers a reason to show themselves telling. Not even first person.

Make a list of these filter words and post it next to your computer screen:

  • saw
  • looked
  • watched
  • noticed
  • smelled
  • heard
  • touched
  • felt
  • knew
  • realized
  • thought
  • remembered
  • reminded
  • decided
  • seemed

You rarely need these in fiction’s narrative writing. (In dialogue you can do almost anything—but the dialogue has to propel the plot, or reinforce character traits, or make extra conflict). At the hardest end of the filter cutting, thought and decided can be erased by first-person limited point of view.

He thought he could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

becomes

He could wrestle the gun from Steiner’s hand.

At the easiest,

Randolph saw the wagon sink in the mud

becomes

The wagon sank in the mud. We should know it’s Randolph doing the watching.

Let a reader observe the action itself in the writing. Visuals rarely need watched and saw. Sensations like smell (one of my favorites) should be unique or pungent enough to stand without the verb smelled. The fuzzy one is felt: it’s almost useful while you describe a texture. But the stubble on his chin felt rough can easily become The stubble on his chin was rough.

Go through and check your writing during revision. After awhile, you won’t even write first drafts using filters.

 

 

What You Need To Win With A Coach

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coachwhistleMaking a choice to employ a writing coach is an important step for an author. How do you choose? Ask a prospective writing coach how long they’ve been paid to write and edit. Ask about salaried writing and editing, editorial projects, articles, and books. Your coach should be able to answer the questions in years. Just like being an incumbent politician, that’s a record of work a seasoned coach gets to reference, and you get to check. That number of years is not any more important than those hard-earned Masters degrees. But it’s no less important, either.

I had the pleasure of working with Steve Adams to help coach me and develop my memoir Stealing Home: The Road to the Perfect Game. There’s the whole element of counseling and listening that turns out to be much more important than any Magic Famous Acronyms from a school. Steve had his MFA, yes, but he also had practical experience in working with writers. A Masters can be helpful, but being able to relate to an artist who’s finding the voice of their story — that is crucial. Some people want repairs to their work. Others like to have the way suggested. Your coach will know what you want because they will ask you, then do a test evaluation or a sample edit.

Like choosing a therapist, surgeon, or minister, it comes down to what kind of person your coach is at heart: you hope it’s someone with integrity and a following who’ll vouch for that integrity and the value of the coaching. There’s no certificate that says Writing Coach, not even an MFA. I like to say that doing your diligence about experience is the best way to find a winning match with a coach.

Great heroes transform a story from the inside

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While there’s plenty of formulas and types of story breakdowns to follow, there’s nothing like an inside job. Things happen in stories because what’s inside the main character, as well as what’s buried in the villains, too.

luke_skywalkerPeople, and how they fare amid trouble, are what keep us reading once we begin. You can start with a fine premise (a college essay falls into the wrong hands and student is called out for an old misdemeanor revealed on its pages). But going deeper keeps me engaged. Showing me why our student was carrying that small amount of dope (her crime) is more important than the circumstances of her arrest or punishment. Knowing what was in her heart when she revealed this secret is a good driver, too.

External events like arrest, breaking the rules, sentencing and being shamed — these are vehicles you employ to show a transformation in your main character. That hero is opposed by antagonists who want something the hero does not want. But even the antagonists must desire something they do not have. It can as simple as denying a hero their desires, or exploiting the hero’s innocence.

“I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you” are words the young Luke has been dying to say all of his life. Why he wants to say those words, beyond the sound of it being exciting, is a key to knowing why to care about this character across five movies (so far).

Everyone who’s a significant character in a story follows a path of transformation. The why that leads them to change the world of the story is the most important engine to push them down the path. Doing character work is rarely wasted time when you apply it to serving the transformation in a story. I always want to know what a hero desires, what a hero fears, what a hero must hide than is forced to reveal. Desire, fear, secrecy: They all can be agents of change in a character and in a story, too.

In an old Murder She Wrote, mystery writer Jessica Fletcher said that “character is the soul of plot.” Something interesting taking place is a good start. Learning why it’s interesting—that’s a story.

How to build metaphors in less than 5 minutes

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how-to-build-metaphorsSpeaking metaphorically. It’s a phrase we all understand. We use metaphor as a way of making something stand in for something else. A bad employee isn’t on the way to being fired. No, he’s a dead duck. We love metaphor in stories because it helps us in two ways. We understand better. We enjoy the images that metaphor brings us, too.

Metaphor is a device in writing and storytelling. But most of us think of something easier when we play with metaphors. We employ simile, the phrases that use “is like” or “as.” She was sweating like a harlot in Easter Sunday church,” me might say. Or “That show was flat as day-old pancakes.” Great fun, similes. You know, using them leads up to an easy road to making metaphors. Here’s a fun exercise you can use to make metaphors.

Write a list of 7 nouns down one side of your page. Specific nouns are better. Not “tree” but “live oak.” Not “car” but “minivan.” You wanna see these things better. You want to know what makes them unique.

Now “is like” next to each noun. Or “are like” if you’ve written something “dalmations” for a noun. Remember? Specifics. There we go. Now for the first round of fun. Finish each sentence. Don’t sweat this. You have seven of these, after all.

There we go. Seven similies. Now for the magic. Strike out the words “is like” and just use “is” or “are.” Instead of dalmations are like checkerboards, it’s dalmations are checkerboards. Or, those checkerboards of dalmations. Voila, metaphor.

You can play with this when you want to call attention to the details of something in a story. They can be events: a Second Wedding. Or places: A Greyhound bus station. Or objects, like plastic wheelbarrows. You’re making poetry, in a way. This is lyrical writing, the kind you hear in songs.

Remember that metaphors are quite a way up on the pyramid of writing skills. The legendary director at Iowa’s Writing Workshop Frank Conroy shows us a pyramid of writing skills. At the bottom are the foundation of meaning, of sense, or clarity. But a couple of levels up is building block of metaphor.

Try making some today, and have fun. You can go too far, of course, and have crazy combinations. That’s what rewriting is for. And as a lot of us writers say, writing is rewriting. Nobody gets it as perfect as a Marine’s haircut on the first draft. (See what I did there? Didja see?)

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