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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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: 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?

First Steps to Writing a Memoir

Woman with typewriter.We all have stories inside ourselves – and the longer we live, the more we acquire. Our pasts are filled with quirky characters, impossible situations, remarkable adventures, and lessons learned. At some point, most of us think about writing it all down, if only to make sense of our lives and capture important moments from our past before time can snatch them away.

Before starting on the process of recording the past, a few questions should be answered.

Biography or memoir?

A biography is a life story, an account of a person’s life from beginning to end told by someone else. An autobiography is the story of your own life told by you (or dictated to someone else). Your history is a great gift to give to your friends and family.

An individual’s memoir is a biography or autobiography of the important events in that person’s life. It is focused, usually has a theme woven throughout, and tends to be more anecdotal. Memoirs are a good way to explore the “meaning of life” as you’ve experienced it in the context of certain events or within a particular period of time. A person can write multiple memoirs, each covering something different from life experience (but an individual will have only one biography).

As an example, President Obama’s biography/autobiography would chronicle his life from birth through the present, whereas his memoir might focus on his years in the White House.

My publisher tells me that bios and memoirs are the hottest selling books on the market right now. But it’s “who you are” that will be the selling point. So unless you’re a celebrity, making it onto the bestseller list will likely be an unfulfilled dream. That leads me to my next point. 

Overall goal of the memoir?

When I first began working on This New Mountain, a memoir of AJ Jackson, the reason was to help AJ leave a record for her family of the things she’d done as a private investigator, repossessor, and process server. But after I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures, we both thought the audience of the book could be much wider – reaching beyond her circle of friends and business associates (see my post “Beginnings: The Goal of a Memoir”).

In my case, shifting the goal meant refocusing and strengthening the elements of fiction writing (scenes, dialogue, beginning-middle-end structure, etc) to create a piece of creative nonfiction that would appeal to a larger group of readers. At this point I knew the road to publication would be a long one, but a journey doesn’t start until you take the first step.

Some writers enjoy the process of writing for the sake of writing itself. For them, finishing a poem or larger manuscript – and knowing they have done their best – is an accomplishment that brings its own joy. Writing for yourself or for friends and family are both goals on par with the “loftier” one of publication.

Purpose of the memoir?

If you’ve decided you want to publish your memoir, ask yourself why.

Writing for revenge or betrayal

Your story can be about revenge, absolutely, but the story itself should not be wielded as a blunt object, a cat-o’-nine-tails, or a bludgeon. Instead, while writing about the hideous aspects of life, you should attempt to teach us something about the behavior of those involved, about your behavior, about all human behavior. Let us into your story by shedding light on our own dilemmas, fears, happiness, or wide-eyed wonder…. Writing a tale that seeks revenge, you’ll quickly see that tale as merely a list of hurts, which, when you get to the end of that list, is a list that may not interest even you anymore. Revenge as a topic is good; as an intent, it’s not.  ~ Marion Roach Smith, “Don’t Write A Memoir to Get Revenge”

Writing a story focused only on pain or as a means of self-help for others

Writing through grief and tragedy is a proven method to heal, but it is not a proven method for getting published. I say this not to be insensitive, but to bring needed attention to the fact that these stories are prevalent, and very few publishing houses are accepting them…. Life experience, or overcoming a personal challenge, is not enough expertise to help others, especially when it comes to physical and mental health. ~ Jane Friedman, “Five Common Flaws in Memoir Projects”

In “Writing Memoir: Art vs. Confessional” Susan Cushman writes:

There are plenty of opportunities to talk about the trauma in your life… If it’s healing you’re after, there are the traditional and private venues like the psychologist’s office and the church confessional. If you believe you just have to write about what happened to you, go ahead. But don’t try to get it published, unless you do the hard work of spinning that painful experience into the golden threads of an artful memoir.

Deciding on the type of biography you want to write, along with its goal and purpose, are the first steps that lead to the foundation of your memoir, and will drive the course of the entire manuscript. In future blog posts, I’ll talk about how to make a memoir more artful and less confessional.

Are you thinking about writing your biography or memoir?

Book Giveaway

TNMcoversIt’s been a few months since I posted news about what’s happening with This New Mountain, the memoir of AJ Jackson, so I thought I’d get you caught up on what’s going on.

AJ and I had several book signings at local bookstores last year. We shared her adventures as a private investigator and repossessor with many who’d never heard of this fearless redhead. And we were so grateful for our family and friends who came out and encouraged us with plenty of hugs and smiles that calmed our nerves and carried us through the hours.

This New Mountain was also honored in 2012 to be chosen as a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards in the biography category. For those of you who bought the book but didn’t get a finalist sticker, let me know right away if you’d like one (before they’re all gone) and I’ll send one out to you.

And today, Sandy Bazinet has posted an author interview with me on her website. Sandy has such a great heart for sharing joy and helping others. She says, “the bliss of writing is seeing you smile!” Check out the interview and leave a comment – and comment on this post, too – for a chance to be a part of…

Our First Book Giveaway!

You could be the random commenter who receives a free, signed copy of This New Mountain. Just leave a comment here – for an extra entry, leave one at the bottom of my interview on the S.S. Bazinet website – from now until midnight (EST) on Friday, January 25, 2013 (for US and Canada residents only). I’ll put everyone’s name in a hat and draw one lucky winner.

If you haven’t checked out the book’s back cover blurb yet, here it is:

Like most private investigators, AJ Jackson has more than one foot in the fire to make ends meet – driving a tow truck and serving legal documents for local law firms. But not every PI is a mother of four, a grandmother of ten, an ex-gun dealer and former mental patient, or a descendant of a great Choctaw chief. This is a memoir of Vinnie Ann “AJ” Jackson, a country girl with a go-to-hell attitude who must face her fears in order to keep her sanity and make a future for herself.

Good luck! I hope you have a fear less day.

Ten More Favorite Country Sayings

The best country sayings take truths found in life and add a little twist. Here are a few more I came across while doing research for This New Mountain (see my first list of ten favorites here).

  1. It’s been hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch.
  2. Letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than getting her back in.
  3. I’ll slap you naked and hide your clothes.
  4. It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
  5. Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.
  6. A man who straddles the fence gets a sore crotch.
  7. That child could tear the hind end out of a skunk.
  8. The quickest way to double your money is to fold it over.
  9. Never drink downstream from your horse.

And last, I think this is one a lot of people can relate to: 

  10.  I’m busier than a cat covering crap on a marble floor.

Lots of Breaking News

We just received news that This New Mountain, a memoir of AJ Jackson, was chosen as a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards in the biography category. Winners will be announced on November 16, 2012 at the 6th Annual Awards Banquet to be held in Albuquerque. We’ll let you know how it all turns out.

Rhythm of My Heart by Frances Fanning (another book released by our publisher, Casa de Snapdragon Publishing) was also chosen as a finalist – in the first book category.

Thank you Casa de Snapdragon for your hard work, and for all you do, for your authors.

Today, September 28, 2012:

If you get a chance, come on by and say “hey!” to AJ and I at our book signing for This New Mountain. We’ll be at Hastings Books on the southeast corner of Lomas and Juan Tabo from 5:00-8:00 pm.

Next Signing:

October 19, 2012 • 5:00-8:00 pm • Hastings Books, 6001 Lomas Blvd NE (Lomas/San Pedro store, 505-266-1363)

Coming Up in January, 2013:

  • A book signing at Moby Dickens Bookshop in Taos
  • A book event at Bookworks in Albuquerque

Hope to see you soon.

Our First Book Signing

l to r: AJ, Cate, and Janet Brennan (Managing Editor at Casa de Snapdragon Publishing)

We had our first book signing for This New Mountain on Friday, August 24th. It was great to have so many friends and family come by to support us. Some well-wishers bought books for themselves or as gifts for others, some came to have their previously purchased books signed, while others just dropped by to say hi and chat. Thank you to all who came and cheered us on – you helped the hours fly by and chased away our nervousness with your friendly faces.

In case anyone missed this book signing, we’re scheduled for another one on Friday, September 28th from 5:00-8:00 pm at the Hastings on Juan Tabo (southeast corner of Lomas and Juan Tabo). Hope to see you there next month.

Thanks again!

Breaking News: Book Signings

The first book signings for This New Mountain have been scheduled in Albuquerque:

  • August 24, 2012 • 5-8:00 pm • Hastings Books (Wyoming store, 505-299-7750)
  • September 28, 2012 • 5-8:00 pm • Hastings Books (Juan Tabo store, 505-296-6107)

If you’ve already bought the book (thank you!) but haven’t had it signed yet, come on by — AJ and I will take care of it for you. And if you’re in the neighborhood and just want to stop by and say hi, we’d love to chat.

Hope to see you there.