Structure: A Different Kind of Memoir

I knew from the beginning, even before writing the first chapter of This New Mountain, that AJ Jackson’s book wouldn’t be a regular biography. It would not relate every bit of AJ’s life from birth onward. Instead, the book would be a memoir, focusing on her life as a private investigator, repossesor, and process server. However, it wouldn’t be a typical memoir.

AJ has a ton of stories, but putting them into chronological order (like most biographies and memoirs) was not going to work even if she had perfect recall of specific dates. Tying them together in this way or making them flow from one to the other would have been a difficult task. In my opinion, this kind of structure would not have made for good reading. I finally decided to present AJ’s stories grouped together into themed chapters. For example:

  • Chapter 7: Sin and Survival – AJ learns to lie in order to succeed in her line of business.
  • Chapter 12: Just This Side of Catawampus – AJ deals with people and cases that are just a bit off.
  • Chapter 14: Jackrabbit Mind – AJ uses her brain, and/or temporary insanity, to get the job done.
  • Chapter 19: Spit and Vinegar – AJ looks foolish, feels foolish, and acts the fool to satisfy her clients.

The stories in chapter two through six are told in the order they happened, but grouping the rest of them by theme made strict chronological order, within the chapters or the book as a whole, impossible. That meant a story about repossessing a car using a tow truck might be included in a chapter with one in which AJ has to jimmy a lock or use a key to open a car door. Or one chapter tells how and why she stopped carrying her Colt .38, but a few chapters later the .38 surfaces again.

Though This New Mountain is not put together like a normal memoir, it is structured and ordered in a way that makes sense. The stories within each chapter are tied together. And all the chapters ultimately tie into the main theme of the book, facing one’s fear.

What do you like most about memoirs – being introduced to a different way of life or following along as a person deals with her life?

Using and Choosing a Pen Name

In many cases, using a fake name is considered illegal or at least dishonest. But doing so is a common practice among artists like actors, musicians, and writers.

Famous authors have used pen names for different reasons for hundreds of years (if not longer). There was a time when women writers weren’t taken as seriously as men, so they often assumed men’s names if they wanted to be published. Sometimes an author used a different name for political reasons, like not wanting to be imprisoned by a particular government (French philosopher Francois Marie Arouet wrote as Voltaire). Stephen King’s early publishers didn’t want to saturate the market with too many of his books, but King wanted to keep publishing so he wrote under the name Richard Bachman.

Other good reasons to use a pen name include: the author doesn’t like their real name; the name doesn’t fit the genre the author writes in (female names sell better in romance, male names in business books); and separation of an author’s works when writing in more than one genre.

This last is one of the main reasons I chose to use a pen name for This New Mountain. I don’t plan to write another memoir, but I do hope to have my science fiction and fantasy work see publication. When it comes time for that, I’ll use my married name, KL Wagoner. But I don’t want future readers to think This New Mountain is anything other than a memoir, and so I took into consideration my later plans for publication.

There is one more reason I chose a pen name – the writing style for AJ Jackson’s memoir is very different from any of my other work. See my earlier post on the voice of the memoir. Again, I don’t want readers to get confused in the future.

The process for choosing a pen name can vary even more than the reasons for using one. Some authors simply take the initials of their first and middle names and add them to their last name (Joanne Kathleen Rowling aka JK Rowling). Others use the name of a relative, a friend, a pet or a combination of any or all. Maps are a great place to find a pen name, as well as characters from favorite books. But a pen name should be chosen as carefully as choosing the name of a character. The author of a crime novel won’t pick a silly, girly name and the writer of chic lit won’t choose an uppity sounding one.

As a child, I accepted my maiden name because it belonged to my father and I didn’t have a choice, but it wasn’t long before I learned that having a last name that rhymed with tick, lick, etc. (a fact which silly boys couldn’t help remind me of on a regular basis) had its disadvantages. So using my maiden name was definitely not on my list of favorites.

For Cate Macabe, I picked a variation of my real first name. As far as the last name, I’ve loved the sound of it ever since being introduced to someone years ago with the same name. I even have a character named McCabe in one of my unpublished novels.

Settling on the spelling of my pen name took careful consideration as well. In researching, I discovered dozens of Kate McCabe’s around the world, including artists, actors, and a published author. To simplify things, I decided on a different spelling. Changing the name at the last minute from Kate McCabe to Cate Macabe caused headaches for my publisher, but a certain amount of flexibility is one advantage to being associated with a small, traditional publisher (and for this, Casa de Snapdragon deserves a big, gold star).

There is a chance I will sign the wrong name one day if someone asks for an autograph. And I might stare blankly for a moment at a person who uses my pen name in conversation with me. Maybe neither of these scenarios will come to pass if I practice my signature and try to get comfortable with being…[cue loud and inspiring music] Cate Macabe, Author.

If you had the chance to choose a new name, what would it be?

Ten Favorite Country Sayings

I found at least a hundred useful country sayings while doing research for This New Mountain. I included about two dozen of my favorites as part of the book’s chapter headings. Here are a few others that were new to me when I came across them and, like most good sayings, are still stuck in my mind like flies on poop:

  1. It’s hard to put a foot in a closed mouth.
  2. He fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.
  3. Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.
  4. Life is simpler when you plow around the stump.
  5. Nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
  6. Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit.
  7. Don’t pee down my back and tell me it’s raining.
  8. If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.
  9. Let the hair go with the hide.

The last saying is on the top of my list at the moment, mostly because it’s a very practical piece of summer advice. It also conjures up a visual that’s hard to get out of my brain.

   10.  Never kick a cow patty on a hot day.

What’s your favorite saying that hits the nail on the head?

Keeping the “Non” in Creative Nonfiction

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, my intention in writing AJ Jackson’s memoir was to stay true to her voice and to the goals she set for the book. There is one more truth we both dedicated ourselves to in our writing journey – the telling of the stories themselves.

Several steps went into the process of making sure the memoir remained truthful. After listening to AJ’s recorded stories and imagining them playing out like scenes in a movie, I wrote them as I saw them in my mind. If I needed more information or clarification, I consulted AJ. Organizing the stories came next. And when I thought the chapters were ready for proofing, AJ read them over and either gave her approval or let me know what needed changing. I edited, revised, and rewrote accordingly. AJ then re-read the stories and give her input again. We repeated this cycle until we were satisfied with the integrity of each chapter. Even after everything seemed right and ready, AJ sometimes came back and said, “no, this isn’t quite right” or even, “this isn’t what happened at all.” Her memory and my imagination often got mixed up somewhere in the telling and re-telling of her stories.

Because of this process, portions of chapters didn’t pass inspection – couldn’t even be reworked – and had to be deleted. The following, taken from a chapter originally titled “Fools Rush In,” is one of my favorite stories we ended up cutting from the final manuscript:

            I once had two cases working at the same time that were, at first, as different as night and day. A bank had hired me to repo a vehicle, and a private party had hired me to investigate Mel, the father of their grandchild. Mel was up to no good and I needed to gather evidence so he could never get visitation rights with his daughter. Well, this repo and this private deal started intertwining. The same names kept popping up in both investigations. These were names associated with the local drug industry – and we’re not talking Walgreens. In the middle of all this complicated business, I went knocking on doors in the South Valley, handing out my business card, and asking people to give me a call if they saw or heard anything about Mel, my “long-lost nephew.”

            I decided to hit one more stucco-front business, the last one on the block, before I took a break. The mom-and-pop taco stand I’d passed a few minutes before would do just fine for lunch. Sitting in the shade of a turquoise umbrella in front of the taqueria, chugging a coke full of perfect cubes of ice sounded like heaven just about then. Even the cicadas complained about the heat.

            An old man dragged a rake across the rocks in front of the building. The landscaping was already pristine, not so much as a shadow out-of-place.

            “Looks good,” I said as I walked past the groundskeeper and headed for the front door. He stopped raking and squinted at me like I was crazy.

            When I stepped through the doorway, I knew why the guy had given me such a strange look. The inside of the place was empty, gutless, except for a card table, a handful of folding, metal chairs and the five goons who occupied them.

            “What’s going on here?” I blurted out. Two of the guys stood up. The others kept looking at the cards in their hands, smoking away, drinking their Dos Equis.

            “What are you doin’ here?” said one of the polite gentlemen with a hairnet on his head and a silver crucifix hanging down the front of his black t-shirt.

            Then my brain turned on. Take one manicured landscape outside, add shell of a business inside, plus scary – yet religious – goons, and I’ve got…trouble.

            “Sorry.” I backed up. “I must have made a wrong turn.”I went through the door, took a few nonchalant steps, and ran.

            The next day, a lady who lived across from this “business” called me. I had knocked on her door and given her my card. She was sorry, but she was too scared to give me any information, and “would you mind not coming by again?” Of course I didn’t mind. I had no intention of going back there.

            Two days later, the neighbor lady called me back. Somebody had broken out every window in her house, and “if you don’t mind, I’m just going to throw your card away, okay?”

            Not long after that, I got another call. “Lady, you stay out of my neighborhood,” a deep voice told me, “or you better be packin’ if you ever come back.” Another Dirty Harry, you-better-be-packing routine. It gets cornier every time I hear it.

            Well, I didn’t go back, thank you very much. I later learned that place was a money laundering business involving one of Albuquerque’s finest citizens. I ended up finding the repo I was looking for in a garage on the west side. And Mel ended up in prison on drug charges. I found enough evidence against him that when he got out, he only had supervised visitation with his child.

This story had potential and included elements of tension and humor. What was the problem, then? It just wasn’t true. The two cases mentioned in the first paragraph – though both real – weren’t the correct ones. And AJ didn’t find anyone in the empty building, so no goon actually confronted her. I had misunderstood and over-imagined the stories I heard and (because of these and other complications) this particular piece couldn’t be saved. If I had been writing a novel instead of a work of creative nonfiction, I would have left the scene in, expanded it and spiced it up, and had a lot more fun getting AJ out of her scary predicament.

This New Mountain uses all the elements of a fiction story – scenes, internal and external dialogue, tension, imagery, a well-developed main character – but because the stories are true (but read like fiction), the book is considered a piece of creative nonfiction. The process of keeping the integrity of the memoir intact was time-consuming but worth it to stay true to AJ and her life.

If you’ve read a good memoir lately, what did you like most about it?

Breaking the Writing Rules

Everyone uses clichés to some extent when they speak. They stick in our brains and it’s easier to let them out rather than try to think up some other descriptive phrase. If you listen to AJ Jackson tell a story, it won’t be long before you notice her use of clichés – phrases like, “yelled to high heaven,” “turn them out like clockwork,” and “drive like a bat out of hell.”

In normal conversation, clichés are fine, and in writing dialogue it’s also acceptable if that’s how a particular character speaks. But in narrative, using a cliché to describe something is considered lazy writing. Coming up with an alternative to a cliché can take some thought, but doing so makes a piece of writing unique and more fulfilling to the reader. 

For This New Mountain, I broke the rules a bit in regards to clichés. But if I didn’t include these kinds of common phrases as part of the narrative voice, the memoir just wouldn’t have been true to AJ. It wouldn’t have sounded at all like she was the one telling her stories. In this case, the way she talks and her internal dialogue are unique to her, clichés and all.

Another choice I made in breaking writing rules had to do with sentence structure. We’re taught in school that run-on sentences and sentence fragments are bad, bad, very bad. Again, in dialogue it’s normal. I did away with the run-ons, but I included sentence fragments in the book to make it consistent with AJ’s way of speaking. Sentence fragments also work great when trying to make a point, build tension, or move through an action scene. In the following excerpt from the chapter “Gone in Six Seconds,” one of AJ’s helpers has just talked AJ into letting her “steal” a repo, and AJ is watching and waiting from her car parked outside the owner’s house:

Cherise nodded her head, closed her eyes for just a second, took a deep breath, and jumped out of the car. I started counting.

One thousand one. Cherise was at the end of the driveway. One thousand two. She was at the driver’s door. One thousand three. She put the key in the lock. One thousand four. She was in the pickup. One thousand five. Still in the truck. One thousand six. No engine turned over. Faster, Cherise! I glanced at the light in the window. Nothing seemed to be moving inside the house. One thousand seven. The engine was still silent. One thousand eight. Now I knew something was wrong for sure.

From an early age, we’re taught that breaking the rules is wrong and can lead to some unwelcome consequences – traffic laws are in place for good reasons. If the rules are broken too often in a piece of writing, it can be distracting to the reader, but when it’s done with intent, it adds flavor to the writing.

Do clichés drive you batty? Is there something you’re willing to overlook in a story because the rest of it is so engaging?

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 Goal of the Memoir

When I first met AJ Jackson, her reason for wanting a book written about her life was to leave a record behind of the things she’d done in the business of private investigating, repossessing, and process serving.

“I’m not getting any younger,” she said. “If I wait too long, it won’t get done. And I want my children and grandchildren to know what I’ve gone through.”

After I finished the drafts of a few chapters of her adventures (that later became This New Mountain), we both thought the memoir might appeal to others outside her family. It seems these chapters captured the same excitement I felt when I first listened to AJ tell her own stories.

So I shifted gears. The audience for the memoir would be much wider. The book’s appeal would even reach beyond her circle of friends and business associates to include those who read crime novels and have an interest in the profession of private investigation. Someone who wants to know how the mind of a private eye works (and the tricks they use) will want to read the book.  Baby boomers will also enjoy the memoir, as will anyone who likes to read about ordinary people working in unconventional jobs. If you want to know the ins and outs of how a real repo-man (or woman) works – don’t watch the TV show – get AJ Jackson’s memoir. And if you’re looking for encouragement to step out of your comfort zone, this is a good book to read.

When we broadened our audience, AJ also added to her goal for This New Mountain. She wanted to encourage others to face their fears – if she could do all the things she did (while being scared to death), she wanted others to know they could do the same.

In one interview AJ told me, “What I’d like to get across to the reader is to never give up. Whatever you’d like to try in life, just give it a shot. Because you’ll never know if you don’t try.” Like I’ve said before, she thinks everyone just needs a little bit of courage.

Ultimately, the goal of any book is to tell a story the best it can be told. Through these twelve years of writing, revising and reworking, questioning and listening, I’ve done all I can to accomplish that one major goal and stay true to AJ’s own intentions.

If you were to write a memoir, what would your goals be?

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?

Live More, Fear Less: Deep Water

This is the first of my Fear Less Friday posts. Writing This New Mountain and seeing how AJ Jackson faced her fears everyday has helped me deal with my own fears. With these Friday posts I plan to talk about the things that grab hold of us and keep us from living fully, and in doing so I hope to help others take a look at what makes them fearful and maybe inspire them to take a step onto another path.

Here is a photo of me on the coast of Maine with a treasure I found washed up on shore. Seeing the not quite picked-clean bones of this huge fish reminded me of similar encounters at a time when I was young and innocent, playing in the sand with my silver spoons and plastic bucket, trying to dig to China. Sand crabs would skitter about while I dug deep holes that filled with ocean water seeping in under the beach. I remember the shield-like remains of a spiny horseshoe crab with its stiff dagger tail. And I remember watching two men drag a large thing through the surf and onto the beach. A sleek, grey, smooth-skinned body with a long tail, and side and dorsal fins. I was little, and the thing was huge and terrifying, and it was a shark.

That creature laying on the sand made me wonder what else swam out there in the deep, among the rushing waves, just beyond the shore. What else was out there that I couldn’t see? Close enough for swimmers to capture, and close enough to swim among the swimmers.

I decided I didn’t want to be one of those deep-water-swimming-with-creatures kinds of people. I’m perfectly happy to watch the waves for hours, feel my toes leave impressions in the hard sand, smell the salt in the air, hear the gulls cry. At peace with the forever cycle of sea meeting land in a rush and swell, a falling back, and a reaching out once more. The sea and me, we have an understanding. I’ll even splash in ankle-deep surf. But I’m not afraid of drowning – I can swim just fine. No, it’s the things in the water I can do without. And I’ve always been okay with this perfectly logical fear I have.

And then I took my oldest daughter on a Caribbean cruise for her 21st birthday. We explored Mayan ruins in Cancun, hiked through a waterfall in Jamaica, visited a place called Hell. It was all wonderfully normal, until she wanted to swim with stingrays. AND she wanted me to go with her. How sweet of her to think of me. The water would be warm and clear, she said. Clear enough to see all those creatures that live in the ocean.

In doing research for This New Mountain I came across the following quote by Ambrose Redmoon:

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.”

At the time of the cruise, I hadn’t been introduced to AJ Jackson and her head-on approach to dealing with fear, but I knew deep down if I let go of this chance to share something remarkable with my daughter, I would always regret it. And a part of me actually did want to – [shudder] –  swim with stingrays.

I talked myself into, and out of, doing it dozens of times. I was still talking to myself as I followed my daughter down the ladder on the side of the sightseeing boat. I changed my mind again, but someone was already on the ladder above me coming down. My heart pounding, I tried not to look at the water below as I stepped onto the bottom rung. I had been breathing deeply for a good fifteen minutes before this to keep from hyperventilating. I took a few more slow, even breaths, told myself to just do it, and dropped into the warm ocean. I expected to have to push off the bottom and swim to the surface but instead I touched solid “ground” after a few feet. The water resting over this pristine reef was only armpit-deep. The sand spread out at my feet soft and white and unmarred as far as I could see. No shells, no seaweed, no creatures, nothing but sand. It was as if someone had swept it clean just for me. This wasn’t so bad. I could do this.

A murmur started from a group of people bobbing about farther away from the boat and me, and closer to the open sea. Then shadows slid through the water, dark cloaks winging toward us. I screamed along with everyone else – tenor and soprano voices mixed together, men and women alike.

But these stingrays were not there to hurt us. They were more like dogs racing in for the treats the tourist boat always brought along to bring them close. The rays hugged our legs and spun around us. My daughter, the adventurous child, hugged one back. I stood as still as possible and took photos of rippling cloaks and tiger-eyes unblinking. Soon the creatures turned and swept back the way they came.

I still don’t like deep water, won’t go in it, preferring slow walks along the edge of my mind and the surf. But now I can say I swam with stingrays – and I never have to do it again.

As AJ likes to tell me, “You just have to have a little courage.”

Is there a fear that keeps you from doing something you’ve always wanted to do? Is it time you took a few deep breaths, pulled yourself up by your bootstraps, and jumped in?