Taking the Fight to the So-What Moment


Few of us are famous. By definition, the word fame labels such people and things as well-known, and there are real limits on how much the world can know about somebody. If you’re like me and not famous, you can still have a memoir inside you, on your laptop, or in the pages of a favorite notebook, one that’s worthy of publication. You don’t even need to have experienced something as unique as cutting off your own arm to escape the wilderness. The key to getting your story into the world and creating a book is to do battle with the so-what moment. You do that battle with the fundamental tools of storytelling.

Writing&SellingYourMemoirSome of those tools help craft sentences and sections, and others serve to steer your story and reel in readers. Paula Balzer examines this in her book Writing and Selling Your Memoir. Some of the weapons to battle that moment — when a reader first sees yours is another story about a broken home, addiction, abuse, financial ruin, or infidelity — rely on the bedrock of voice and style. Your writing must emerge over so many words and drafts that you’re fluid in your voice: the writing that sounds like you and you alone. Everybody has memoir stories to tell, yes. But only you can tell the story in your voice.

Style is comprised of rules and choices, but staying consistent with your voice is a great start to honing in on style. A hair stylist makes a statement for you when you emerge from their salon. Your hair becomes an expressive, emotional element when it’s styled. Your writing makes the same leap when you write towards exuding style. Style has elements, in the classic Strunk & White textbook The Elements of Style. Like the individual cuts, curls, and colors of the salon, the grammar, punctuation, and choices of those elements make up writing style. Like the hairdo that makes us look, good style compels reading.

Reaching for style involves rewriting, the practice that gives you a go-to repertoire. No gerunds, for example. Short sentences, several of them, followed by one long one. The exquisite use of just the right word, although it’s one that’s rare as a just-minted coin in the reader’s hand. It’s the fadeaway jumper from Michael Jordan, says Ben Yagoda in The Sound on the Page, or John Coltrane’s use of the modal scale in jazz. Or leaving out the obvious, like Hemingway did, “and agressively omitting adjectives, metaphors, commas, and connecting words and phrases.”

Although a memoir’s experiences may not be unique, even that can work in your favor. If a story has a high relatability factor — many of us have grieved for someone we’ve have lost — it’s easier for our readers to connect with us. At their essence, stories of marital infidelity are really about betrayal. If you’ve never married, you can still relate to betrayal. And betrayal, and its aftermath, contributes to a universal theme. The little guy who fights the big Goliath of a company can bring down an unfair competitor. But how? Showing us exactly which moments contribute to a universal theme propels a story about a hike through the Appalachians to overcome doubt about abilities  (A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson) beyond that story’s so-what moment. It was just a hike, so what? It was also a discovery about how a hiker is made, or born. And we connected with the main characters early enough in the story to stay on the scene and watch whatever happened next.

In the big picture, the battle against the so-what moment is won or lost with effective writing. The elements are the same as for any kind of story, nonfiction or fiction. You need a good hook. Your story must rush to an engaging moment before the reader has a chance to ask that so-what question. That moment probably lives inside a scene I get to see as the reader. Many people have taken their kids on a two-week vacation in a car. The hook can be the quest for more than just pictures, souvenirs, and dog-eared programs. Those two weeks might be a way to find a proof of love, like a detective story. But only if that proof is elusive. I took a two-week road trip one summer across Midwest ballparks. But the perfect game was not the one I planned. Life is like that, if you’re lucky, and can stay out of your own way on the road.

“We just don’t automatically have the kind of mind-blowing material that results in the “tell me more” situation right off the bat,” Balzer says in her book. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have the material to write a fascinating memoir— it just means we have to battle the so-what moment using some of the other tools in our toolbox.”

The sharpest tool in that box is theme, but it’s also the most elusive. You can work a great deal of the way into a memoir, or any book, before you discover the story’s theme. This is the spine that Sydney Pollack described when he was telling the story of how he directed Out of Africa. “We spent about two years trying to find what I always call a spine or an armature of this piece. Sort of trying to distill the idea  down to one or two clear sentences that could be a guidepost,” he said. “What is it really about? We finally settled on possession. Freedom versus obligation. If I say I love you, what price am I expected to pay?” Out of Africa is based on Karen Blixen’s memoirs, by the way.

“Most best-selling memoirs, if you were to boil the story down to their core, probably have the same story as someone who lives down the street from you, or as someone who works in your office,” Balzer writes. The memoir writer has to mix many additional elements into their book to compel a reader to click the buy button for $12, or carry that paperback to the register. The elements must come from the craft of writing, especially style and voice.


The best case ever for the serial comma

Comments Off on The best case ever for the serial comma

Also known as the Oxford comma, it’s the one that follows the next to last item in a list. For examples we can look at newspapers, any website, and content providers. (See, in that construction, you don’t get confused about whether someone is providing content as well as websites). Print media, where I learned my practices, isn’t fond of the serial comma, because journalism is literature in a hurry.

But when you leave that comma out, unexpected calamity or hilarity can ensue. One favorite t-shirt reads

“Let’s eat, Grandma.”
“Let’s eat Grandma.”

Commas save lives!

Now comes this example from Sky News (the UK version of Fox News) demonstrating the need for a serial comma. Certainly would be an interesting wedding between world political figures, though.

Oxford Comma

Greatest Hits: using -ing verbs

Comments Off on Greatest Hits: using -ing verbs

Back in 2006 I posted a short piece about the difference between -ing verbs and the other forms of the verb. It’s also got nice advice on what Dr. Peter Clark calls “branch to the right.”

So while -ing is a natural part of English, and maybe a significant part of your true voice, it is gentle, not powerful. Clark has another column about some of the best advice he got on writing strong. He calls it, “Branch to the right.” It means get your subject and verb as close to the beginning of the sentence as you can, then follow them with your subordinate clauses. “Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early,” he says.

You can read the full post here. It includes a link to Clark’s fine book. I use -ing in our Workshop as an exercise. We’re filling out the September tables now. You can be sign-ing up for a spot even now.

That vs. Which

Comments Off on That vs. Which

The more you write, the more often you’ll run into the fork in the road called that versus which. That is, which do you use and in what instance? A new book in the Workshop’s library is Woe is I, one that bills itself as “the grammarphobe’s guide to English in plain English.” It’s true — and possessives are also a meaty chunk of the book — this book by Patricia T. O’Connor is written in plain English. So that’s why, which you might have guessed from the book’s scope, Woe is I delivers a ruling on That v. Which on page 2.

The sentence above uses which correctly because the clause containing which can be pulled out the sentence — and we still get the point of the sentence. Not all clauses are so conveniently set off by commas, though. The clause that is bereft of commas is the one that needs that. One best way of thinking of this is, “can I get away with which here, or do I take the default of that?” That makes “which” a fast friend of the comma. Meanwhile, “that” is often the best choice in every other circumstance. O’Connor leaves us with a little epigram to sort out the distinction.

Commas, which cut out the fat
Go with which, never with that.

About split sentences

Comments Off on About split sentences

Nobody wants a writer to lose their voice in the edit, but there are several things to consider in a sentence with a comma in its middle. The sentence that I just wrote is considered a loose sentence in Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (page 25), because it’s connected with a conjunction (but) and a comma. Get enough of these in a short stretch and you run the risk of letting the reader’s focus drift.

The best alternative for the comma-conjunction (such as “, and”) is to break the sentence into two, or use a stronger break such as a long dash, or a colon or semicolon. It’s a simple survey on your rewrite: just search for “, and.” Some are fine, but too many of them will give you a chance to tighten the reader’s focus.

Simple language leads to perfect stories

Comments Off on Simple language leads to perfect stories

It’s easy to find praise for simple things in life. But writing seems to evoke the opposite effect in building sentences, paragraphs, sections and stories. We want to be noticed with our writing. However, if you look underneath that wish you should find the desire to be heard and remembered. Simple language delivers those two results. Simple lets the story rule the reader’s attention.

Last night in our weekly Writer’s Workshop we enjoyed Blackberries, a simple short story that our member Kathleen Clark showed me over our summer break. The Leslie Norris sudden fiction story — another name for a short-short, under 1,000 words — has few sentences that run beyond 15 words. Despite the brevity, the language is rich in feeling and detail. Here’s one of the few, written about a blackberry vine.

His father showed him a bramble, hard with thorns, its leaves just beginning to color into autumn, its long runners dry and brittle on the grass.

Just count the verbs to see why this sentence works so simply. Show. Hard. Color. Even the adjectives are doing verb work, like dry, or waxing specific with an action, like brittle. The nouns swing into action: bramble, thorns, leaves, runners, grass. Of 26 words, 10 breathe simple life into this writing. (Kathleen called the story “perfect.” I struggle to find any reason to disagree.)

Blackberries, like many other stories in Sudden Fiction International, runs on three main characters and two minor players across the space of four printed pages. The writing doesn’t shy away from using variations of the verb “to be” in various tenses. Norris considers that advice, of using better verbs than be or were, but uses these simplest verbs along with others. Much of the simplest writing does.

Going which hunting

Comments Off on Going which hunting

Tonight in our workshop group meeting we talked about the use of that and which, a couple of pronouns which can baffle many a writer, regardless of their experience.

A trip to the redoubtable The Elements of Style shows that the word that often stands in for which. When we talked about this, the subject drew one pun after another, making both words sound as if they were the right choices. As you can see from the cover above, this book has been an essential through many generations of writers.

“The use of which for that is common in written and spoken language,” Strunk and White say in their book. “The careful writer, watchful for small conveniences, goes which-hunting, removes the defining whiches, and by so doing improves his work.”

That is a defining pronoun: “The lawn mower that is broken is in the garage” tells us which mower.

In contrast, “The lawn mower, which is broken, is in the garage,” adds a fact about the only mower in question.

To put it another way, make the whiches in your writing prove their existence. Much of the time, that will serve nicely. It’s a choice which is more conversational in tone, too — and that might be closer to your native voice.

Poynting to the problem of -ing words

Comments Off on Poynting to the problem of -ing words

One of my favorite Web sites for writing advice is the one at the Poynter Institute. Yes, it contains wisdom and training for journalists both green and experienced — but the lessons are often just about good writing. Especially when Dr. Peter Clark holds class online.

Across 2004 and 2005, Clark filled up a Writer’s Toolbox with more than 50 techniques, each about 750 words in length. Every one of them is followed by exercises you can apply to learn what he’d taught. Just at random, I found his entry on words that end in -ing. He says, “Let me offer reasons why ‘ing’ might weaken a verb.

“1. When I add an ‘ing,’ I add a syllable to the word. This does not happen, in most cases, when I add an ‘s’ or an ‘ed.’ Let’s take the verb “to trick.” First, I’ll add an ‘s,’ giving me ‘tricks’; next, I’ll try an ‘ed,’ giving me ‘tricked.’ Neither move alters the root effect of the verb. But ‘tricking,’ with its extra syllable, seems like a different word.

“2. Verbs with ‘ing’ begin to resemble each other. Walking and running and cycling and swimming are all good forms of exercise, but I prefer to point out that Kelly likes to walk, run, cycle, and swim.”

50 Tools BookSo while -ing is a natural part of English, and maybe a significant part of your true voice, it is gentle, not powerful. Clark has another column about some of the best advice he got on writing strong. He calls it, “Branch to the right.” It means get your subject and verb as close to the beginning of the sentence as you can, then follow them with your subordinate clauses. “Even a long, long sentence can be clear and powerful when the subject and verb make meaning early,” he says.

Clark made “Branch to the right” his first of more than 50 tools. The advice feels fundamental. There’s plenty of it in his complete Toolbox series, which he has adapted into a fine book.

We use -ing in a lively exercise in the Workshop, something to surprise us about the absence of a verb.