I sat in on a talk by editor and writer Kathy Ide.
Kathy not only has a career as a fiction writer, she edits and ghost writes fiction amongst other things and you can find out more about her using the link to her website above.
This lecture really confirmed to me what I say to my clients all the time about how we write and what creates a compelling and strong narrative, but it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves of this once in a while.
The memoir, like any piece of fiction, has to have a clear defined overall message.
You need to know its purpose as a book, so why is this story important to tell?
What is the reader ‘takeaway’, so why invest in this story in terms of pay off, what message or life-changing epiphany does this story have?
Often, Kathy suggests, that this can be clarified by writing a clear mission statement; think of it as a statement of intent. I ask my clients what a book is saying and to think of it in a sentence or two only.
Like fiction, you then need to decide on point of view characters in your writing. For memoir that might be you; you narrating the story that reveals an aspect of your own life, but it might be you are writing about someone else or using multiple narrators for opposing points of view. This can provide layering in the story, through contrast. But think carefully about who your POV characters are. Don’t head-hop!
Make sure settings are strong and you convey the reader to the place, make sure these are accurate as well, but evoke all the senses so you allow the reader to really be there.
Don’t overdo description but make it active and part of the movement of the story.
Like all stories, memoirs need shape and this is defined by the beginning, middle and end structure. Of course you might move about in time and play with structure but you need to understand story shape to do this well. So think about how you shape the story, and just because it happened a certain way and point in time in real life, does this make for the best memoir? How much fictional license do you have? It’s your book!
Kathy suggests that use of a functional summary for each scene is a useful device here. I always suggest to clients that function is vital for focussing plots so you remove anything that does not move plot and/or develop character, therefore also exploring theme.
Ensure that, even in memoir, you understand how fictional dialogue works so that you apply the same devices. Make sure it’s again functional, fluid, gives characters voice, only uses ‘said’ and not all the derivatives of, doesn’t overdo adverbs (these are telling), use action in it, so you are telling but capturing the moment as if the reader is in the moment. Again use creative license as we don’t need all the how are you, how do you take tea, hellos, goodbyes etc. This is the ‘business’ part that can be implied. You will have read my posts about creating strong dialogue and this is equally applicable in memoir.
The same principles apply in SHOW DON’T TELL and this is a biggie because there is a greater tendency in memoir to ‘tell the story’ rather than place the reader right there in the moment and bring it to life with effective showing. FILM the scenes. Yes you might draw on the wisdom of hindsight if you are reflecting on a moment later, but for connection to your reader, place them in the scene and make them part of the moment that’s important. Use the reflection as well if you have to.
Use active verbs. Again there is a strong tendency in the memoir to use a more passive, we had… voice, and then we had done this. Be active to inject energy into your writing.
Also look closely at tenses, just because you are writing about something that happened in the past, does not mean the past tense always has to be used. You could bring it to life using the more active and immediate present tense for example. Perhaps use past tense for flashbacks within the now moments? But don’t randomly use a combination of tenses.
Rhythm of language and story is also important so Kathy suggests that you weave in a balanced mix of: simple, compound and complex sentences. Use declarative statements of fact, questions and exclamatory (emphatic) sentences. Also use intentional sentence fragments and she says vary the arrangement of the subject, verb and clauses within each sentence.
This is part of what I tend to write about in style when I edit, but style covers many aspects of your writing and you have to think about the style that lends itself most effectively for you in your writing to do your memoir justice. It might not always be what comes as a natural first choice for you and it might mean hopping out of your comfort zone into a different tense for example but it really works for the scene, so think on this.
Even if you are writing memoir, Kathy strongly advises, as do I, that you read fiction. And lots of it!
And of course when you have finished the ms, consider professional editing and proofreading, whether you plan to submit or self-publish.
I have worked on some memoirs and one of them was so long when we started out. To knock it into shape, a great deal of the time I was showing the client that however interesting an event seemed at the time, unless it was important for story and the takeaway message, it probably doesn’t need to be there. It’s about taking only the key moments and scenes and shaping them into an interesting and compelling story. This applies to fiction and memoir.
I hope this overview of the talk is interesting.
Some of Kathy’s books can be found on her website:
I have a copy of this so will review it soon!
That’s it folks!