Memoir Writing: Scene, Summary, and Musing

Photo/KarenJordanWhat is a memoir? “I had to look up the definition of a memoir before I wrote my entry for this contest,” one writer confessed to me.

“Congratulations!” I responded, acknowledging her award.

This writer’s research paid off. Plus, she chose an inspiring, true story from her life, and she engaged her readers with a meaningful message using creative nonfiction techniques.

Being a judge of the contest entries, I also noticed that some of the other aspiring and experienced writers needed to do a little research before they wrote a memoir. So, I’m sharing here some of what I’ve learned as a memoirist.

My road to memoir writing started with enrolling in a class on writing for publication while in college. But I really didn’t hear the term “memoir” much until I took nonfiction writing classes a decade later.

One of my favorite professors at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Dr. Sally Crisp, recommended a very helpful book on that subject by another writing teacher, Judith Barrington. Barrington describes her book, Memoir Writing, as a “practical guide to the craft, the personal challenges, and ethical dilemmas of writing your true stories.”

Defining memoir. Since I’m knee-deep in writing a memoir with my daughter Tara, I needed a refresher course. Here’s my own memoir checklist.

  • Focused theme or topic. William Zinsser discusses the memoir in his book On Writing Well. “Memoir isn’t the summary of a life (like autobiography); it’s a window into a life, very much like a photograph in its selective composition” (136).
  • Narrative. Memoir tells a story about certain people, places, or events from the writer’s personal life.
  • Reflection. The writer’s thoughts and beliefs about the events are a vital part of  the memoir.
  • Conversation. The narrative voice reflects on her thoughts and feelings in an intimate, conversational, and honest manner.

Creative NonfictionThe memoir tells true stories using creative nonfiction techniques.

  • Contains all the elements of fiction.
  • Moves back and forth in time.
  • Requires believable dialogue, based on truth.
  • Switches from scene to summary to musing.

Photo/KarenJordanScene, Summary, and Musing. Musing takes a vital role in the memoir. But scene and summary provide two useful ways to move through the narrative.

Judith Barrington describes the memoir’s characteristics of scene and summary in cinematic terms. I’ve often used photographic terms to describe the editing process.

  • Summary. Here the writer focuses on the panoramic view. This may include numerous details, but examines the person, place, or event from a distance. For this viewpoint, I imagine myself taking a photo of a sunset or sunrise over a lake with my long-distance camera lens.
  • Photo/KarenJordanScene. For this macroscopic view, you zoom in for a closer look at your story and focus on a particular point of view or incident. Consider using some dialogue to illustrate your scene or another descriptive device to describe an intimate detail of that moment. In photography, I change my lens and focus for a closer view of a child or the reflection over the lake.
  • Musing. I visualize this characteristic of a memoir as the microscopic view, zooming in on the writer’s intimate feelings and thoughts. The reflective voice of the writer expresses her feelings and thoughts at the time of the event. She might choose to express her current understanding or the wisdom that she gleaned from her personal experience. For instance, I love to capture the memories by the lake close to my home–the awesome sunrises and the poignant moments with my grandkids. It reminds me to record the stories that matter most to me as a gift for the next generation.

Storytelling. In memoir, the writer tells a true story from her life, using her best creative nonfiction skills. As you examine your memoir for revisions, focus on your areas of strength and weakness. Do you tend to focus on summarizing your story rather than zooming in on some important scenes? Have you reflected on what a certain person or event means to you or what you’ve learned from this experience?

I challenge you to work on the weaker elements of your memoir. Your story will become stronger and even more meaningful, as you examine your scene, summary, and musing.

Photos/KarenJordan

What helpful insights could you offer about memoir writing?

 

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Would You Write A Book Without an Outline?

You probably wouldn’t drive across the country without a map.

You probably wouldn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner without recipes.

Would you write a book without an outline?

The practice of outlining a book in detail takes an enormous amount of discipline. Focusing on the infrastructure of the story is a whole different ball game than writing in free form and letting things evolve as they may. My first book was a result of rambling writing sessions, often resulting in superfluous content which ended up being taken out of the story. Although it was fun to just write and see what happened, it seemed there had to be a more effective method out there, one that would result in a greater yield with less exertion. Most writers have other jobs, and when it comes to writing time, every moment is precious.

Some writing coaches suggest that creating a detailed outline is the most important part of book writing, and the part where most authors struggle. Writers may spend weeks or even months on the outline alone, to provide some frame of reference for how detailed the outline can be. Writing a book is a project, not unlike building a house. There is the foundation, there are the walls, the flooring, the roof, etc. Only when the skeleton of the house is in place can homeowners enjoy working on some of the more aesthetic features of the home – picking out colors, the yard, creating curb appeal, you name it.

A project manager friend who has been intrigued by the writing process asked how my latest book was coming along. Our casual conversation at a wedding evolved into something else when I mentioned being stuck halfway through the book. The project manager asked if she could help me in going back to the drawing board and getting serious about planning it all the way to the end. I started sending her samples of my content and images of people that remind me of my characters. She would go through what I had written so far against our burgeoning outline and provide feedback: “I don’t think the character would say that on page 73,” or “When are the characters ever going to make it to Barcelona? You said that they have been saving up their mileage points for the trip,” etc.

At first I wondered if it had been a little premature to share my work with someone else. She had questions that were not always easy to answer, such as why I chose one title over another. Each time I had to explain an aspect of the story, it helped me figure out how to convey metaphors and messages with much greater clarity. After a few short weeks of this exchange, we finalized the outline. It’s all been downhill from there. Writing to an outline hasn’t seemed restrictive at all. It’s been like driving with a navigational system in the car, so you can better focus on the traffic, the scenery and the passengers.

Compass and Bible
Writing can be a very solitary profession, but creating an outline is a great opportunity to collaborate with others, should you desire to do so. It’s a lot easier to get someone to read an outline than to read a manuscript of 120,000 words or so. If you can have the feedback given to you in a postive way by someone who can deliver it in a manner that makes you comfortable, then your writing will become that much better for having another pair of eyes review it. Having to discuss and explain your work, your ideas, and your story line can be pretty awkward in the beginning. However, writers have to do it eventually anyway, so why not start from the get go?

Writers, do you sit down and just write, or do you use a more formal approach?

Perseverance: Keep Moving and Writing!

Photo/KarenJordan

He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak … those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength … they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Is. 40:29-31 NIV)

My legs quiver as I step onto the sidewalk in front of my home. How can I launch out for a walk feeling so weak? I take a second step, determined to go forward with my plan to regain my health by exercising.

Obstacles. My motivation to exercise overpowers my temptation to stop. I gain strength in each additional step, as I begin my lesson in perseverance. But it will not be an easy journey. There are obstacles to overcome and goals to reach. Can I make it? 

Resistance. Exercise, like other worthwhile endeavors, demands strength and stamina. The first morning I attempt my new exercise program, everything within me resists it, like opposite poles of two magnets. I would rather do just about anything other than exercise. So, on my first day out, I let temptation win. I stay home, and I feel guilty the rest of the day.

Failures. By the next morning, my previous day’s failure serves as my primary motivating force. So, I lace up my walking shoes, purchased just for this occasion, and jog slowly out of my garage. My first goal has been accomplished. And the next thing I know, I’m crossing the street facing the next block.

Intimidation. Okay, this is going to be a breeze, I think. But by the time I turn the corner, another fear presents itself, as if to try to stop me in my tracks. An all-male construction crew building a house nearby alarms me because of the recent crimes in my neighborhood. I’m fearful of walking in front of them. But I hold my breath and walk on. I move this obstacle out of the way, as I change my route and proceed in another direction.

Distractions. As I walk uphill, I become short of breath. When I slow down to breathe, a gray squirrel catches my attention. He’s busy burying an acorn in my neighbor’s yard. I watch him as I walk by. When I look up, I’m already at the end of the street, about to turn the corner to complete another block.

Goals. I continue to accomplish small goals as I walk. In a short while, I’ve gone far enough, and I decide to return to my home. My mind is cleared by the fresh air, but my body is affected by the exercise.

When I arrive home, I’m exhausted, but surprisingly refreshed. As I sit down for a cool glass of water before I shower, I recall the distance I’ve covered. I feel good about myself, and I’m grateful that I resisted the temptation to quit.

Strength. I find strength as I face my weaknesses each day. In 2 Corinthians 12:8, Paul tells us that the Lord’s “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Writing. I’m forced to face my fears and weaknesses in many other areas of my life, especially my writing life. Writing for publication also demands strength and stamina. So, we can expect to face resistance, right? With each new project, goal, or idea, we’re reminded of some past failure, rejection, intimidation, or distraction.

Survival Tips. How do you endure setbacks in your writing life? I’ve learned a few survival tips on the walking trail and on my writing journey  And as I face my fears and take one step at a time by faith, I’m able to go the distance

And now, … one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.  Keep putting into practice all you learned and received … Then the God of peace will be with you. (Phil. 4:8-9 NLT)

Where have your faced resistance in your life? How did you overcome it?


Photo/KarenJordan
YouTube/mrnmrsyounger (MercyMe – “Move”)

Behind Every Great Writer is an Ideal Reader

Writing can be a lonely business. One way authors can alleviate that issue is to build a relationship with a person that they consider their ‘Ideal Reader.’ An Ideal Reader is a trusted partner, advisor and the first person to read the writer‘s first draft of a book.

The Ideal Reader is symbolic of the writer’s audience overall. This person represents a composite or a common denominator of the author’s demographic, so in this case one size will definitely not fit all. Once common ground and a willing exchange has been determined, what qualities should the Ideal Reader possess? They should be well read in the genre of the book, whatever it is. They need to be a person that the writer trusts implicitly. They should also be able to communicate in a way that the writer will appreciate. Assertive communication occurs when there is open and honest feedback presented in a respectful manner. The Ideal Reader will be able to convey their suggestions in a way that will make the writer think twice. The suggestions are taken under advisement and there is no weirdness if some or all of the suggestions are not implemented.

Girl Browsing Books at the Library

The Ideal Reader should be able to detect structural flaws, such as a deceased character showing up in a later chapter. It is a first draft, after all, and first drafts are usually a bit of a mess. You probably know a few people you don’t mind coming over when the house is in disarray. Those are the people with whom you feel most comfortable, who you trust, who you are willing to let see you at your worst – not just your best. That’s the kind of confidence to have in your Ideal Reader.

You may even have different Ideal Readers for different areas of your writing. Think of them as subject matter experts who can check your content for flaws. Have a friend in the medical field review your story which takes place in a hospital. If you don’t know much about something on which you are writing, give it to a person who does work in that field to see whether or not they find it credible.

Another aspect of the Ideal Reader is that they need to be into your writing. Writers, don’t hold yourself hostage by trying to make an Ideal Reader out of someone with a “you’re welcome” attitude who looks annoyed whenever handed a manuscript. If you have to follow-up with them multiple times over several months, then keep looking. The partner you want will be naturally enthusiastic to see what you have created. They are engaged and interested, and they can’t wait around for several weeks or months or years to find out about your latest opus. They are supportive but provide constructive criticism. They are collaborators actively involved in the process. Once you have established your Ideal Reader, do what you can to maintain the relationship. They are rarer than diamonds and even more valuable.

What is your approach to collaborative writing?

Do you have an Ideal Reader?

Pitch Your Book Like it’s a Movie (The One Sentence Synopsis)

I recently attended a screenplay writing seminar with Publishers and Writers of San Diego. It was taught by writing coach Marni Freedman and focused on taking an existing book and developing it into a screenplay.  Screenplays are extremely concise – they average around one hundred pages. Being concise means really having to know the infrastructure and outline of a story. There are several aspects of screenwriting that are helpful in book writing, and one of those aspects is the creation of a logline.

A logline is a one sentence synopsis of your story. It is like the cover of a book. A good one makes you want to open it immediately to see what is inside. Before you can create a logline, you will need to understand where your book is going. When you try and select a movie on cable, you see loglines all the time. They are very brief descriptions of the show’s content.

For example, let’s look at a logline for The Godfather by Mario Puzo: A 1940’s New York mafia family struggles to protect their empire from rival families as the leadership switches from the father to his youngest son. Although The Godfather is an epic, the plot can still be boiled down into a one-sentence pitch. Audiences have short attention spans and you only get one chance to make a first impression. Effective loglines are compelling: they draw people in and make them want to know more.

Ready to create your own logline? It can be comprised more easily if you are able to supply the following story formula that Marni will be publishing in an upcoming book – 7 Steps to a First Draft:

Story idea: Who – Unique Problem – Goal – Ending (Marni Freedman 2010)

  • Who do you want to write about? Why are they interesting? Why should we care about them and want to follow them?
  • What unique problem does this person face?
  • What is this person’s goal? How will the person solve it? Who or what will try to stop them?
  • How does their journey end?

Writing coach Marni Freedman (www.thewriterinyou.com) encouraged our group to create loglines, as they are not just for the authors to be able to quickly explain the heart of their story, but also serve as a pitch that can be used when interacting with agents, entering contests, meeting with producers, or anyone with whom you want to engage. If you would like to practice this exercise, think about one of your favorite stories (which can be the form of a book or movie) and create a one sentence synopsis of the plot and action.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe: Four children travel to the magical land of Narnia where they must battle an evil queen with the direction of the Lion, Aslan.

Citizen Kane: Following the death of a publishing tycoon, news reporters scramble to discover the meaning of his final utterance.

Toy Story: A cowboy doll is profoundly threatened and jealous when a new spaceman figure supplants him as top toy in a boy’s room. 
Clapper Board
The creation of a logline takes time and effort. It’s hard to boil down your story to a one sentence synopsis. It may take you several attempts, so don’t beat yourself up if you find it a harder process than you originally anticipated. You will know that you have stumbled on your perfect logline because it is fun to pitch and rolls off your tongue. Try it out on your friends and watch their reactions. If their eyes light up and they say, “yeah!” then you know you are on the right track. Just start giving it a shot, and you may find that you understand your story with surprising clarity.

Can you see how creating a logline might add value to your writing?

Ever-Increasing Returns

Publishing a book is an adventure. Part of that adventure is engaging with the people you meet along the journey. Some of those people will serve in a capacity of enlightenment and support. They provide assistance for you at different turns. It could be marketing assistance, subject matter expertise, best practices, or networking to find the sensei you seek. Lest we forget, the best adventures usually require planning behind the scenes. The book writing adventure entails hours of constant editing and agonizing over the right words.  There is nothing glamorous about this part of the journey – it’s the grunt work that makes everything else possible.

Adventures are often taken solely for adventure’s sake.  Sometimes you return with treasure, but not always. Upon attending my first literary workshop, I found it a bit daunting to learn that only 5% of writers actually make a living from their writing. Anyone who has ever penned a book knows how challenging it can be. If there is no monetary value in the experiment of publishing a book, why should the author continue up the mountain? The author goes on because it’s a labor of love. There are other ways to get compensated from writing a book. The total compensation package is comprised of much more than money. Opportunities to help others appear continuously and if you find such experiences rewarding, your pockets will be continuously lined with gold.

One of my favorite movies is Rex Pickett’s Sideways. Through Twitter marketing I stumbled upon Rex’s profile and discovered Sideways has been adapted for the stage. I saw Sideways the Play in Santa Monica and was able to meet Rex, who has been an inspiration ever since. Tweeting has been valuable in other ways, too. By building relationships with authors, readers and bloggers, writers gain a greater scope of influence and increased credibility. Nothing is more valuable than that.

There are countless ways to spread the wealth of knowledge acquired on the writing journey. By researching the process of formatting a novel into an audiobook, I became acquainted with www.acx.com. This fluid website is a hub for authors to connect with actors that do voice-over work. Authors can connect with actors in a number of ways. One is to upload some material so that any interested actor can audition for the ‘role’ of narrating the content. One actress auditioned to be my book narrator within twenty-four hours of uploading sample pages. Hearing her try out for the voice of my protagonist was an incredible experience. Authors can also take the more active approach of searching for a specific kind of voice. If there is a need for a young woman with a French accent, you can search your ideal parameters to find actors and make them offers. You have options of payment, one being a 50/50 royalty share. Going through this exercise made me think of a friend who is always looking for voice-over work. I was able to inform him of ACX, and he is probably getting his account set up with them as we speak. Some of the actors are listed to make $200.00-$400.00 per completed hour of work. For those with golden pipes, it appears to be a very good opportunity. My friend’s enthusiasm and delight over engaging with ACX was better than selling fifty books. My ability to help him was a direct result of being on the journey.

Many opportunities in the form of people will appear on the path during your publishing adventure. The lifetime value of these helpers, guardians, luminaries, and assistants will not always be evident at first. Some may help you indirectly with constructive feedback you don’t want to hear but know you need. In turn, you will be able to help others as well. You will encourage them to believe that they can do what you have done. Some will even thank you for your contribution to the written word. For those who are able to take a creative mindset in terms of total compensation, there will always be a deep blue ocean of  ever- increasing rewards.

In what non-monetary ways have you found the writing journey rewarding?

When Good Writers Go Bad

Recently I listened to a thought provoking sermon about how to tell when good leaders have gone bad. The lesson was universally applicable because we all have leadership opportunities at some point in our lives. Whether it is leading a major corporation, mentoring a student or babysitting, we are providing guidance. As writers, we have an incredible opportunity to lead others. Here is my spin on that lesson, exploring several traits that indicate a writer may have gone to the Dark Side:

A Big Ego

Being an author means creating a platform, and selling yourself and your product. At some point, you may begin to believe your own press. The praise feels great and after a while, you get used to it. Then, when it does not come readily, we wonder why. Although some of the most acclaimed writers of all time had healthy egos (Steinbeck, anyone?), focusing on how the writing might benefit others is much more inspiring to readers. Someone asked me this week, “Do you write to feel powerful and  make the characters do whatever you want?” I told her my writing stems from a desire to entertain. She looked baffled and said she would probably become addicted to the control over the story and other readers. It’s easy to see how authors could get wrapped up in the ‘power’ aspect of writing, if they were so inclined–but that’s not what inspires people.

Isolation

Alone time is a necessity for many writers who can’t focus with others anywhere in their vicinity. However, the more time we spend alone, the more we rely on our own judgement. The feedback from trusted advisors is invaluable, but if one is operating in a silo, that may not seem necessary. Excessive isolation can be dangerous, it keeps writers from being in touch with their audience, as well as with other writers with whom they might partner. Actor Jonah Hill has commented on how much easier it is to write with other comedians. Woody Allen has expressed that people are willing to help a writer in the creative process, as long as the author has put in the time to get a project close to being fully baked. Although there is nothing wrong with self-reliance, no person is an island. If you have it available to you, why not seek wise counsel?

Us/Them Mentality

When fellow authors enjoy success, we can either be happy for them or turn pea green with envy. We may console ourselves with the sentiments that so-and-so is only popular because they write scandalous material, or because they are friends with ‘the guy behind the guy’ at Google. Writing is a tough business to break into, and it’s understandable to feel jealous of our successful colleagues–but why not leverage them instead, and even adopt their principles for success? Author communities (i.e. WordServe Water Cooler) are committed to the prosperity of all. In this and similar organizations, writers help each other with social media support, comments on postings and general assistance in spreading the word around. It’s a huge relief when others help take up our causes. Disinterest in helping others only results in hurting oneself.

If you see yourself in any of these traits, don’t despair.  We’ve all been there at one point or another to some extent. The idea is to identify our symptoms and course correct to ensure we are keeping ourselves honest. As writers, we need to lead our followers somewhere worthwhile.

Have you ever experienced any of the above? How do you think the writing journey might change an author over time?