Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Dialogue

LongRoad2bDialogue in any kind of story is useful for revealing motives, character, conflict, setting, and important information; as well as for creating tension and suspense, and movement through scenes. While staying true to your memory when writing memoir, you can still produce realistic dialogue by following certain conventions.

In a memoir, can you really recreate pages of dialogue? No. Key phrases may live in your memory, but few [people] can remember word-for-word exchanges. For this type of writing, you’ll have to rely on reconstructed dialogue, but it needs to come up against the standards of good dialogue.  ~ Darcy Pattison

Like all of us, your characters’ speech is influenced by their education, family, friends, where they’ve lived, their way of thinking, and the particular circumstances they find themselves in. A teacher will speak one way in front of a group of children, another way with her colleagues, and still another when she’s at home. 

The following are basic ways I’ve found to effectively capture interaction between characters through dialogue.

Use Contractions: In modern conversation, people say “don’t” instead of “do not,” unless they’re trying to make a point or for emphasis. “Timmy, don’t touch the skunk.” And then, “Timmy, do not touch that skunk again. Do you understand me?”

Don’t Overuse Names: We might say “Bill, is that a venomous spider on your back?” to get his attention, but when our husband comes home from work, the conversation doesn’t sound like:  “How was your day, Bill?” “My day was so-so, Barb, how was yours?” “Well, Bill, I stubbed my toe.”

Avoid Niceties: When people meet or talk on the phone, they might begin with the weather or inquire about each others health, but unless a person is fixated on these things (as part of their personality) or they’re important to the story, skip it. So when Bill comes home from work, instead of asking about his day, Barb might greet him immediately with, “I had the worst day ever. I stubbed my toe.”

Dialect: Writing dialect, and doing it right, is a difficult thing to do. What might sound right to you in the writing – because you know what you’re trying to say and how it sounds in your mind – might not come across to the reader the same way. Pick a few words, like “y’all” and “yonder,” and pepper them in the dialogue for best effect.

Vernacular: As with dialect, common language can be overdone. Include a few words to get the flavor, such as “gonna,” “gotta,” “wanna.”

Here’s an example of dialect and vernacular from Bobbie Christmas*:

The following is the kind of dialect editors do not like: “He ben goin’ ta dat sto’ ever’ day since thin.” It is much better to write in the vernacular – the lingo – of a character’s speech, spelling words correctly, but using the character’s word, as in this rewrite: “He been going to that store ever day since then.” 

Beware Exclamation Points: Overusing exclamation points becomes either annoying to the reader or meaningless like white noise. Instead of using an exclamation point every time characters get excited or angry in conversation, show this in their mannerisms or other physical reactions. Use them only when you have to and never more than one per instance. According to author Terry Pratchett, “Five exclamation marks [are] the sure sign of an insane mind.”

Information Dumps: To keep a reader’s attention, large amounts of information should not be imparted all at once in writing, and certainly not through dialogue. When we talk to each other, we don’t usually go on and on about a subject. And when people do, we (as listeners) often tune them out. We don’t want to do that to our reader. Give us important information through description, exposition, in bits and pieces, and break it up naturally in dialogue. Even when making a speech, the speaker will pause to take a drink of water or ask for questions from the audience. A storyteller will pause for affect, catch the eye of listeners, talk with his hands.

Filler Words: People pause when they talk, using words like “ah,” “uh,” and “um.” Sometimes we do this out of habit and sometimes just because we’ve lost our train of thought. Even though this is a natural way of speaking, it fills up space in dialogue and is annoying to read. For a character who speaks with pauses as part of who he is, use these sparingly as you would with dialect and vernacular.

Dialogue Tags/Beats – Tags and beats let us know who is speaking.

Use “said” whenever possible – it doesn’t interfere with the writing because the reader tends to pick up the important information (who’s talking) and skip the “said.” Use another word, such as “whispered” or “shouted,” when it’s not already clear how the character is speaking through word choice or the use of beats (see below).

Insert a dialogue tag where it feels most natural in the conversation, and sooner than later. Waiting until the end of a paragraph can be confusing or distracting to the reader if they don’t know who is speaking. In the first sentence of the next example, the reader doesn’t know who’s talking until the end, and it could make a difference in how the reader imagines the scene: “Well, that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?” Barb said. Or, “Well,” Barb said, “that certainly is a colorful, venomous spider. Would you like to hold it?”

A beat is a description of a physical action that falls between lines of dialogue. It adds variety and movement to the writing, aids the reader in “seeing” the scene, adds to characterization, and helps with the writer’s work of showing-not-telling. Where you have a beat, you don’t need a tag. Do this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider.” Barb brushed the creature off Bill’s back. Not this: “Look, another colorful, venomous spider,” Barb said, brushing the creature off Bill’s back.

Paragraph Structure: Give each character in the conversation his own paragraph, even when using dialogue tags or beats or if it’s a one-word or one-sentence paragraph.

For memoir, we rely on our memory to write dialogue, but even having a recorded conversation doesn’t mean it converts smoothly into dialogue. For This New Mountain, I was able to transcribe a recorded interview with AJ Jackson’s mentor that became an entire chapter. This was a real-life, in the moment exchange, but straight transcription wasn’t enough to make it work. I added dialogue tags and beats. I cut filler words and vernacular. And to keep the movement going and spark interest, it was necessary to summarize some of what was said and include additional, relevant information.

Learning how to write good dialogue is a process. And like most kinds of learning, it takes reading and study and practical application. Go out into the world and listen to conversation. When composing dialogue, let it play out in your mind between your characters, and then share the end result with others to get their feedback.

(*Bobbie Christmas/Zebra Communications, the Writers Network News April 2012. For a free newsletter and Tools for Writers go to www.zebraeditor.com/tools_for_writers.shtml.)

What are your suggestions for writing realistic dialogue?

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Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: A Compelling Opening

Writing a memoir asks for you to dig deep into your biography and come up with scenes that bring a reader into your world fully and inspire them to keep reading – something about you and your story is relevant to their lives. ~ Linda Joy Myers

Hook1One of the most consistent pieces of advice for fiction writers is to hook a reader immediately – if possible, with the first sentence, or at least in the next few paragraphs. If readers don’t feel pulled into the story within the first two or three pages, they may not continue reading. This is certainly true of an agent or publisher reading through their slush pile.

Memoir is a different genre and its readers don’t expect action-packed openings (which aren’t necessarily recommended for fiction either), but the first few pages should still compel us to continue on and immerse ourselves in the story.

One argument against an action opening is that the story hasn’t had time to reveal the characters and who they are. There is no such thing as a story without a character, even if the character is a thunderstorm or a beating heart. And conflict is necessary, because character + opposition = story, but if conflict is introduced too early, it could leave the reader wondering, “Why should I care about what’s happening to the characters?”

Jane Friedman (in “The Biggest Bad Advice About Story Openings”) reveals the importance of including character in the beginning of a story with her list of three things she finds most compelling in a good opening:

  • A character we immediately know and understand
  • A situation that presents tension, e.g., a character who’s not getting what he wants or who meets opposition
  • An indication of the larger story problem or conflict between characters

According to James Scott Bell (Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure), there are two more things that the beginning of a novel must do besides (1) hook the reader and compel him to continue farther into the story; (2) establish a bond between the reader and the main character; and (3) introduce the opposition:        

  • Present the story world.
  • Establish the general tone of the story.

Your story world, or setting, will change as the story progresses from scene to scene or moves around in time and place. In the beginning, you should concern yourself with hooking the reader and drawing him in, and not bog down the story with paragraphs of exposition. Your setting could also be its own character or part of the conflict in your story – a parched desert that sucks the life out of you, constant rain that brings heaviness into your life, a bedroom whose tight space feels more like a dungeon than the child’s haven it should be.

It’s also important that your reader trusts you in the journey you’re taking together. You, as the narrator of your memoir, should establish the tone of your story so the reader knows what to expect. Through internal dialogue, word choice, imagery, etc. you will set the mood of your story. The mood will shift, of course, depending on the circumstances the character moves through, but the general tone should be consistent in the way you deal with the story. Will it be a more light-hearted telling, as in My Dog Skip by Willie Morris or the heavier-handed one of The End of the World as We Know It by Robert Goolrick?

You are the main character in your memoir. As important as revealing a character is to a novel, it is even more so to a memoir. Bring the reader into your story. Create curiosity and they will follow where you lead them.

Research the opening sentences, paragraphs, and pages of great novels or memoirs. What are your favorite, most compelling story beginnings?

Writing the Memoir: Consider the Consequences

soothing ripplesIn my post, First Steps to Writing a Memoir, I pose questions regarding purpose and goals that should be answered before committing to write your life stories. There is actually a fourth point to consider: Should you write a memoir?

How will writing and publishing your memoir impact you? Do you have the right to tell your story when it includes the part others played in it – portions of other people’s lives they may not want uncovered?

Here are some things to consider.

You will reveal things about yourself. You will do some major soul-searching, digging deep into your past. What you pull out may not be pretty. Are you ready to open the door on your own secrets? Are you ready to share the intimate details of your life and have others truly know you?

To write an effective, authentic, cohesive memoir, you’ll likely need to revisit or even relive the pain you’d rather forget. You can’t gloss over the tough stuff. You have to dive in, come clean and carry on. ~ Laurie Rosin*

You will reveal things about others. The old axiom that says, “You can’t please everyone,” is certainly true when you send your memoir out into the world. Not everyone will be happy with how you portray them. In exposing the part that others played in your story, you risk offending and/or alienating them. When these people are family or friends, you might want to ask yourself if telling the story is worth the affect it will have on important relationships.

When we write memoir, we pull back the curtain on our private lives and invite readers in. We willingly give up our privacy, or a chunk of it. But because we’re human, our stories also include other people: parents and siblings, teachers and neighbors, lovers and friends — and they haven’t exactly signed on to the deal. ~ Tracy Seeley**

You will risk legal action against you. A writer can be sued for defamation with the claim being that what was written is not true and has caused injury to reputation or character. Another legal claim is that of invasion of privacy, or the public disclosure of private facts. According to Stephanie Rabiner, Esq., “It is illegal to reveal truthful, yet private, facts to third parties. The facts must not be of public concern, and would offend a reasonable person if made public. The information must also legitimately be private and known by few, if any, other people.” To be sure of the legal ramifications of your memoir, you might want to discuss the possibilities with a lawyer.

Only you can decide if you should tell your story and how it should be told. But in deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, perhaps the best question to ask is, “Who or what do I serve in the telling of it – me or the story itself?” Your memoir is not so much about what happened but about the importance of your journey, about what you brought into it and how the journey changed you.

Writing memoir is not for the faint-hearted…. Our first obligation is to the art and truth of our story. And that means not censoring ourselves…. Write with respect for your subjects, even if they come across as louts. And tell your story true, artfully and with courage. ~ Tracy Seeley**

(Read *“Don’t Gloss Over the Hard-to-Write Parts” by Laurie Rosin and **“Important Privacy Issues in Memoir” by Tracy Seeley.)

What has been the most difficult part for you in preparing to write your memoir?

Pick a Throwaway Title and Keep Writing

Writing2In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know what it will be before beginning the manuscript or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir This New Mountain. I knew one would come to me in time.

There came a day, though, I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

I had already brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if that was settled it would help me move forward on the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering most of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one, The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson, that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without spending any more time and frustration trying to choose an actual title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title – and the book became Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. A very catchy title (and don’t ask where that came from), but now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes to include with each chapter name, I found this: 

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before. Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello This New Mountain.

“Dirty Underwear” is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title to something I’m working on. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one, not liking the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

What are some mind tricks you use to make sure you get things done (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late)?

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Point of View

Looking BackA novel can be written in one of several points of view, but a memoir is written exclusively in first person – the “I” viewpoint of the narrator. While this is a great vehicle to draw readers in and bring them close to you and your story, the key to good writing is to take readers to a place where they feel what you felt without telling them how to feel.

For memoir, you use yourself as the lens through which readers see the world. You can change the focus or direction of the lens (your eye or your perspective), but it’s not wise to consistently focus on the lens itself — or, the inner workings and specifics of your turmoil. It’s much better to write scenes and describe experiences to evoke a feeling in the reader, rather than tell them how to feel, or to navel gaze. ~ Jane Friedman*

Author and editor Alane Salierno Mason prefers “an eye seeing to an I talking” which is the difference between an “I memoir” and an “eye memoir.” Try describing what you see in a one-dimensional photo of the Grand Canyon, and then do the same after standing on the edge of the real thing. The one can only take you so far, the other can take you anywhere. And the reader with you.

When it is an eye, it is in constant relation to the outside world. This kind of eye sees not only from the narrator’s point of view [or] only from the point of view of the moment; it stands and moves both inside and outside the self. It might even see from the point of view of ancestors, both literal and literary; it might see itself swept along in historical and cultural and political currents and in others even more mysterious. It sees itself swimming in a larger sea than that of the individual. ~ Alane Salierno Mason**

Accomplishing the kind of re-focus necessary for an “eye memoir” requires you to step back from who you are now as the writer and return to the perspective of who you were during the period of your memoir. Take us with you across a lonely schoolyard or into a dark woods. Show us a face of joy, let us hear the words that cut you deep. It isn’t, “I cried when my parakeet died,” but, “I turned then, right before the screen door slammed. And I saw – in the insistent beat of his wings, his delicate head thrust forward, eyes intent and focused on mine – his longing to be with me. The door hit with a dull thud, and not the sharpness it should have. And then he was falling, silent and still, to the floor….”

This thoughtful, empathetic, reflective persona is the real heart of memoir, the voice that readers will follow and want to know. The discoveries it makes over the course of the story, the wisdom it uncovers and brings to the tale, even its confusions and uncertainties — these will carry the audience through, well beyond the limits of “me, me, me.” ~ Tracy Seeley***

In filtering every detail through your eyes, your story becomes your truth. And in the end, your memoir is not so much about what happened but about the importance of your journey, about what you brought into it and how the journey changed you.

What would be the most difficult part of going back and seeing your life again through the perspective of younger eyes?

*Jane Friedman, “Your No. 1 Challenge If You’re Writing Memoir”

**Alane Salierno Mason, Writers Digest Magazine, July 2002, “In Memoir, It’s the Eye that Counts”

***Tracy Seeley, “Creating Memoir That’s Bigger Than Me, Me, Me”

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Story Arc

PuzzleButton3A well-written memoir utilizes the same elements of a novel, including scenes, dialogue, characters, and a beginning-middle-end structure, also called a story arc. A story arc moves the main character/protagonist (you) from one situation to another, one state of being to another. Without this structure and focus, the memoir will quickly become a disconnected, chaotic jumble.

Take the time you need to structure your story before you write. Drawing your arc is not something you can knock out in the half-hour before dinner. It challenges you to survey the tangle of emotions, motives, repetitions and complexities of events you lived through with the cold, dispassionate eye of an editor. It asks you to know not what is important or meaningful to you, but what is important or meaningful to the story. ~ Adair Lara

The Beginning of the story arc introduces the protagonist and the protagonist’s problems, desires, and conflicts. This is the set up for the rest of the story. In many memoirs, the story begins initially in more or less the present state and then moves into the telling of the protagonist’s journey.

The Middle is full of obstacles, physical and emotional, that the protagonist encounters and strives to overcome or at least move through.

The End includes the biggest hurdle, the climax, and a tying together of loose ends. The ending is tied to the beginning in some way, often through resolution or revelation regarding the initial internal conflicts. Many memoirs return the reader full-circle to the beginning of the story.

Here are a few examples of beginning-middle-end structure:

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls is called “a remarkable memoir of resilience and redemption, and a revelatory look into a family at once deeply dysfunctional and uniquely vibrant.” In the beginning, Ms. Walls is riding through New York City in a taxi where she sees her mother rooting through a Dumpster – but she’s too embarrassed to stop. We’re then taken into Ms. Walls’ childhood and learn the things that shaped her life and her relationship with her parents. The end takes us to a time past the beginning of the memoir  to a point of healing.

My Dog Skip by Willie Morris begins with the protagonist finding a photograph of Skip, “his eyes flashing in some momentary excitement. Looking at a faded photograph taken more than forty years before, even as a grown man, I would admit I still missed him.” We’re then swept into the life of a boy and his dog growing up together in Missouri – a dear story of love and friendship that eventually brings us full-circle (I dare you not to cry).

For This New Mountain, I start with one of AJ Jackson’s “adventures” that shows a typical day in the life of a private investigator, and present her internal conflicts regarding her age, financial situation, and being “stuck” in a dangerous job she knows she can’t do forever. In the middle, we journey with her as she learns the ups and downs, and ins and outs, of her profession. In the end, AJ has worked through many of her initial conflicts, but she also faces the facts and makes life-changing decisions.

Adair Lara writes extensively about building a story arc in the Key Elements of Writing a Memoir. Here is a brief summary, taken from her article, of what defining your story arc looks like:

  • [Beginning] Decide what you, the narrator/protagonist, want in the story you’re telling. The struggle to achieve this desire drives the book.
  • [Middle] Detail what you did to get what you wanted and what got in your way.
  • [End] When the narrator/protagonist gets what he wants, or doesn’t, or stops wanting it, the story has reached the end of its arc. We see him changed by all that has come before.

Knowing and understanding your story arc will keep you focused on what the memoir is about and guide you in what to include and what to leave out, as well as what needs detailing and what can be touched on through summary.

What memoirs would make good study material for your own?

Memoir Writing: Organizing Your Life Stories

PuzzleFlowerThere are times when a writer sits and stares at a blank page or screen without a clue as to how to start a story. This is not a classic case of writer’s block, it’s more like the gear shift hasn’t been properly engaged. But once it’s moved from park to drive, the journey can begin. In writing, that nudge to get going may simply be to tell yourself, “Just start.” Begin at the beginning, the middle, even the end. None of it’s written in stone. The order, and the writing itself, can be changed and rearranged at any time.

When I first started the project that became This New Mountain (a memoir of AJ Jackson), I asked AJ for the basic facts of her life: birth date and place, family history, etc. I also gave her a tape recorder and told her to tell her stories as they came to her. As it turned out, AJ began with her divorce, which was the driving force that led her to become a private investigator. This is not how the memoir itself begins, and it’s not the foundation of the book, but it is an important part of the puzzle in understanding who AJ is. She continued to record the stories that were the most important to her because they were the ones that were closest to the surface, the ones she had continued to engage in over the years. As the stories came to life in my mind, questions also came up, and those led deeper into her past which, in turn, led to other, untold stories.

Writing down your most important stories first, your most vivid memories, is one way to “just start” the process of putting your memoir together. As in AJ’s case, one story will most certainly spark your memory of others.

To some, this may seem too haphazard a way of doing things.

Stacey Dubois, in an article for the Writers Digest blog, tells us that our “memory’s natural organization” is special when it comes to autobiographical memory. This “episodic memory (memory of events)…is unique in that all of the memories are relevant to YOU. Unlike other systems of memory, autobiographical memory contributes to the formation of your sense of self…the memories form the story of your life.” Ms. Dubois has these suggestions to take advantage of the way memories are organized naturally in the brain:

  • On separate sheets of blank paper, make a timeline for each sphere of your life (school, work, family, friends, etc).
  • On each timeline, segment and label the important periods.
  • Separate these periods from each other with defining events – turning points such as moves, milestones, deaths, etc. (these can differ from timeline to timeline).
  • Take notes on what you remember from each period, staying completely within one sphere at a time. It’s also a good idea to make your first pass over the activity chronologically, even if you are not planning to organize your memoir that way.

The main advantage of organizing the important periods of your life with all their turning points is that you’ll then have a detailed outline and the makings of the stories themselves. Another advantage of following Ms. Dubois’ advice is that it could help you decide what the main focus of your memoir will be (if you don’t already know). Once the foundations of the stories are laid out, you’ll be able to see patterns or themes, and ways to organize the memoir. You might even recognize you have the makings of more than one.

The most important thing, no matter how you do it, is to write the stories down. Don’t worry if the focus or the theme doesn’t come to you right away. Just start, and you’ll be surprised how all the paths begin to converge farther down the road.

Have you started writing down your life stories?

Breaking News

This New Mountain is now available to order on Amazon!

This New Mountain final cover

Final cover: This New Mountain

The folks at Casa de Snapdragon Publishing told us things would move quickly at a certain point – and they certainly have. After months of going through the too-slow (but necessary) process of proofing and tweaking the manuscript and front/back covers, the final-final-final proof was approved last night…and today AJ Jackson’s memoir is ready to order. Amazing.

Availability at Barnes & Noble will follow in the next few weeks, with e-book formats coming out sometime later this summer.

Thank you-all for your patience. We’ll keep you updated as book signings and other special promotions are scheduled.

Beginnings: The Voice of a Memoir

When authors start out on their writing journey, they’re often told to find their Voice – that thing that makes their writing unique among thousands of other voices in print. “Finding” isn’t really the right word, though, as if they had it once and then lost it somehow.

Developing an authorial voice is more what a writer does. It’s a long process, and it takes reading the masters in many genres. It takes sitting down and writing for years, getting comfortable with the true sound of words and cadence, experimenting with complexity of language, playing with the rules. When she “finds” this voice – this style – it flows naturally in a story and is found throughout an author’s body of work.  

Narrative voice is something else found in fiction – the voice of the point of view character or narrator that carries the reader through the story. The voice of the author and narrator are tied together. (For a more detailed discussion of authorial and narrative voice, go to this article by Ruth Nestvold and Jay Lake). 

To make This New Mountain as genuine as possible for the reader, I put aside my own developed voice and my own style in favor of writing the memoir in AJ Jackson’s voice. Doing so wasn’t as difficult as I first thought it would be. I listened to hours of AJ’s recorded stories (often more than once), had lengthy phone calls with her several times a month, and met with her on a regular basis. While stringing words into sentences and sentences into chapters, I heard AJ clearly speaking to me in my head. My goal as I wrote was for the reader to also hear her – as if she was sitting across the table, sharing a pot of coffee while telling her adventures in her own straightforward, unpolished style.

I hope friends and family will recognize the person they love in the pages of This New Mountain. And I hope readers who are new to Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson will quickly learn to love this country-wise woman with her unique voice.

You will find a bit of me in there, too – my own voice woven into the fabric of description throughout the book. I couldn’t help seeping in. After all these years, AJ is a part of me the way the lives of all true friends become entwined.

Of the authors you enjoy reading, and keep going back to, is it their style of writing, their storylines, or their characters you like the most?

Beginnings: Choosing a Book Title

Along with the first tentative outline for the memoir This New Mountain, I brainstormed a list of titles, thinking if I had that settled it would help me move forward with the book. This list included Born to Serve, Liberating Process, Liable to Confound, and In Lieu of Surrender. I thought these were clever, catchy titles considering many of the stories in the book had some kind of connection to the laws of the land – thank goodness none of them made it past the first stage. There was only one – The Amazing Life of Ann Jackson – that I seriously considered. But none of these choices truly grabbed hold of me and said, “This is it, this is the one.” They didn’t speak about AJ’s past or her future or her now. They just didn’t feel right.

In my own experience with picking a title for my fiction writing, I either know right away what it is or within a few chapters after the story gets going. So I didn’t worry when no concrete title surfaced for AJ Jackson’s memoir. One would come to me in time.

As usually happens when I write without a title, there came that day I just couldn’t write another word. Seeing an empty space on the title page above my name and in the header/footer made me freeze up. Like having an odd type of writer’s block. I sat and stared at the page for the longest time and could not put one more word to paper (or screen).

But I needed to move forward, and that’s when I came up with a solution without actually choosing a working title. I needed something either bland or outlandish, but not something I would grow attached to or mind tossing out when a real title came to mind. Don’t ask me why (because I don’t have an answer), but within a few minutes of realizing I needed such a thing, I had my throwaway title: Dirty Underwear. No, you’re not allowed to ask why.

So the book started out as Dirty Underwear: A Memoir of AJ Jackson. Catchy title. Now I could at least finish the chapter I was working on when writer’s block hit, and move on.

It wasn’t too long after that, while searching the web for quotes I wanted to include with each chapter name, I found this:

We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains. ~ Ursula Le Guin

And there it was. I had found the true title of AJ Jackson’s memoir. It embodied what all the others lacked – strength in today, while suggesting movement and something that existed before.

Goodbye Dirty Underwear, hello (thank goodness) This New Mountain.

Dirty Underwear is still the title I use when I don’t know a story or its characters well enough to come up with one right away. It works simply because it doesn’t fit and doesn’t have to, and because giving it up isn’t a hard thing to do. I don’t normally go a long period of time without penning a title. Maybe my mind works subconsciously to come up with a suitable one just because it doesn’t want the alternative attached to my stories. Whatever the reason, my throwaway title works every time.

Do you have a mind trick you use to fool yourself (like setting your clock ahead so you won’t be late), or am I the only strange one out there?