Memoir Writing: Lessons from Jeannette Walls

by Sherri Burr


The Glass CastleWriters who have contemplated crafting memoirs, but were too afraid, can learn lessons from Jeannette Walls, author of The Glass Castle. She feared that if she revealed her impoverished childhood with eccentric parents, who lived on the streets of Manhattan and dumpster dived for food, people might cease to speak to her. One day she quizzed her mother, “What am I supposed to tell people about my parents?”

“Just tell the truth,” her mother said.

Walls did just that in her 2005 memoir that has been translated into 23 languages and sold over 3 million copies. In The Glass Castle, you can open any random page and find a gem. On page 39, Walls explains why she doesn’t believe in Santa Claus. Her parents disillusioned their four children from expecting expensive gifts on Christmas morning. “Try not to look down on those other children,” Mom said. “It’s not their fault that they’ve been brainwashed into believing in silly myths.”

Turn to page 56 where Walls explains that her mother didn’t like cooking. “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” her mother asks, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?” Walls describes how her mother would make a pot of beans to eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a week or more.

Then there was the time Walls and her brother Brian found a two-carat diamond ring, which her mother refused to sell. Walls writes, “But Mom, … that ring could get us a lot of food.” “That’s true,” her mother replied, “but it could also improve my self-esteem. And at times like these, self-esteem is more vital than food.” When Walls reminds her mother, “We haven’t had anything to eat but popcorn for three days,” the mother said, “You’re always so negative.”

Walls’ portrait of her mother is a testament that she is sensitive to people’s feelings. Like all memoirists, Walls was concerned with violating her loved ones’ privacy. She recommends sharing the manuscript. After doing this, she found it brought her closer to her family, not farther apart.

Her brother Brian was astonished she remembered the story of their father taking him to a whorehouse. Brian said at the time Walls looked far away. That she recalled enough detail to write the scene flattered him.

Walls believes that writers can tell stories without hurting loved ones. “If you are looking to understand them,” Walls says, “you might be surprised how supportive people will be. Be open to changing names to protect privacy.” Walls did that in The Glass Castle on the recommendation of lawyers who vetted her book.

Perseverance is another lesson from Walls’ life. She first tried penning her story as a teenager, then again in her twenties and thirties. It wasn’t until she was 40 and encouraged by her second husband, the writer John Taylor, that she set down in earnest to write. “I needed perspective,” she says.

She created a version in six weeks and then spent five years polishing it. “Just sit down and write,” she counsels. “Tell the story from beginning to end. Read it out loud. It takes a lot of work to seem spontaneous.”

It was in the revision that Walls threw out material from her New York experiences, which she initially thought compelling, and added scenes she had dismissed as unimportant. One of the turning points in the book was when Walls discovered her mother owned over a million dollars worth of land containing oil and gas rights. When confronted, her mother refused to sell despite their dire poverty. It was Taylor who urged Walls to include that scene.

Walls warns writers not to read other memoirs while writing their own. Walls started reading Angela’s Ashes during the midst of her revisions and noticed blarney creeping into her story. Once she realized she was channeling another writer’s voice, she put the book down. Even for her own books, Walls instructs to read and set them aside. “Don’t try to copy me. Everyone has her own story. Listen to your own voice.”

In her second book, Half Broke Horses, Walls found the voice of her grandmother Lily Casey Smith and spins the tale of a woman with true grit. Lily, who grew up breaking horses in New Mexico, left home when she was 15 to become a teacher in Arizona. Eventually she would learn to fly. But because Lily wasn’t around to interview by the time Walls wrote the story, she invented dialogue and calls it a True Life Novel.

Though writing fiction, Walls follows her mother’s advice, and tells the truth.


SherriBurrSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, Burr has authored or co-authored twenty books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is also a long-time member of SouthWest Writers and a regular contributor to the organization’s newsletter, SouthWest Sage.


This article was originally published in the March 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Evoking Emotions

Sketch Of Woman CryingReaders of memoir, like fiction readers, come along for the ride because of the promise of being swept into someone else’s world, which is often different from their own. And they expect everything that goes along with that undiscovered land – setting, history, character struggles, victories and defeats. Even though a memoir is nonfiction, it shouldn’t read like a history book. Adding emotion to our writing will help ensure readers are engaged in the journey we’ve promised them.

There are a lot of crimes a writer can commit – the torture of sentences, the mangling of meaning, the wrecking of words through using the wrong one at the wrong time. However, the greatest of these is the crime of lack – to forget to put in the emotion. ~ Shannon Donnelly

Six basic emotions are found in all good writing: anger, love, sorrow, joy, fear, and surprise. The situations that elicit these feelings may be different, but the feelings themselves are common to all of us, at one time or another and to differing degrees. Expressing these effectively in our memoirs will touch the hearts of those who read our stories.

But evoking the emotion is not the same as telling it. Saying, “I was angry,” is one way to express how we feel. But wouldn’t it be more powerful to show our anger in physical reactions or dialogue?

Emotions are one place where the author should “show, don’t tell,” or “show, then tell.” Show, Don’t Tell, refers to the idea that fiction should create the emotion in the reader by zooming in and giving enough details for the reader to feel as if they are in the story itself. ~ Darcy Pattison

In regard to Show, then Tell, Ms. Pattison explains that “once you have Shown the emotion, you can also – not all the time, but selectively – also name the emotion.” As a rule, the best writers avoid “telling” as often as possible.

How to Evoke Emotions Without Telling

Through Actions
Did a child stomp a foot when he was angry? Stare at her feet when ashamed? Did you slam a cupboard door in anger? Bounce for joy on a bed when you won the lottery? Did your dad sit on the edge of his empty bed, staring out the window for hours, after your mom died? Some people yell when they’re angry, others whisper. We cry out of joy, frustration, and sorrow.

Through Physical Appearance
Facial expressions show our emotions and so can slumped shoulders and jagged fingernails. Our hands shake when we’re nervous, or afraid, or angry. Faces flush out of embarrassment. Eyes widen and lips might become pale from fear. How does jealousy manifest in our outward appearance – a sneer, clenched fists?

Through Setting Description
How we feel affects how we see the world at a particular moment, and we can use that to color our descriptions. A child might describe a new playground as huge and inviting with so many playthings to choose from, but an adult who has just lost a child might hear the screeching swing and see the place as empty and grey.

Through Dialogue
Conversation can show a lot about how a person is feeling. Often it’s not what we say but how we say it that gives us away. Our words come out angry, sarcastic, cutting. Our speech might be halting if we’re unsure or manifest as stuttering or stammering. Sometimes we don’t say what we mean or only speak in half-truths. We blurt things out when we’re excited or choose our words too carefully to hide our anger. The sound of our voice changes, too – growing deeper or high pitched.

Through Writing the Hard Stuff
Writing is hard work. Period. Including emotion in our stories is something we all need to master, but writing a memoir comes with a unique challenge. A fiction writer can pour her truth onto the page without the world guessing how true it is. As a memoirist, you expose your life and your heart to the world, and there’s no hiding those truths. Even a lighthearted story will have its sad or bitter moments. At some point you will face the stark white page that demands a sacrifice of blood. My advice? Shake it off and write as honestly as you can. Straight on. Simple language. It will be powerful.

Through “Contradictions and Convulsions,” “Brambles and Beatitudes”
Truth in writing naturally evokes emotions. Aren’t we often conflicted about our choices or our feelings? We are not perfect robots, or dutiful children. When we read fiction or memoir, we experience someone else’s life. We see how they deal with hard choices, and we rejoice or cry along with them. Their pain is our pain. Maybe we like to be reminded we are not alone.

The following excerpt from the article “Touch the Hearts of Your Readers: Entangle Their Emotions” by Tom Bentley speaks about conflicting emotions common to all of us:

I felt such relief knowing my mom wasn’t to be expelled from her home, such dread that she might outlive the [mortgage] contract, such guilt that I actually hoped she would die in her home before the time is up. How can you hope for your mother to die?

Those kinds of mixed feelings – love, guilt, pride, shame, regret – can pull at a reader as much as they pull at the characters in your work. If you can find a way to use those kinds of feelings, their contradictions and convulsions, richly and honestly, your writing will be the more rich and honest for it…

[We] need to chase down our characters and pull them into all of life’s brambles and beatitudes, and sometimes all at the same time.

If you’ve taken on the task of writing a memoir, leaving out emotion should not be an option. Decide why your stories are worth remembering and retelling. Grab hold of their importance and write from that place of truth. Evoke time and place and relationships with honest emotion. Straightforward or subtle, sharing your feelings (the good and the bad) will enrich your writing, and engage and impact your readers.


Image “Sketch Of Woman Crying” courtesy of luigi diamanti at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Use NaNoWriMo to Meet Your Nonfiction Writing Goals

NaNoWriMo CrestHave you met your writing goals for the year? No motivation, no writing routine? It’s almost the end of the year – are you thinking, “Why bother now?”

No more excuses. Now is the perfect time. And meeting your goals, getting motivated, and starting a writing routine are perfect reasons to try National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year. Join hundreds of thousands of writers who dive into a writing frenzy beginning November 1st with the goal of finishing a 50,000-word draft by midnight on the 30th.

“But…but I’m not writing a novel,” you say.

No problem.

Be a Rebel

Don’t let the term “rebel” scare you off. Some rules just beg to be broken. According to WikiWriMo.org:

A NaNo Rebel is a NaNoWriMo participant who chooses to write something besides a novel of at least 50,000 words from scratch in November. Some NaNo rebels choose to continue a novel…while others wander into the worlds of nonfiction, video games, scripts, and academic writing.

Use NaNoWriMo to suit your project. Memoir. How-to book. Personal essays. A year of blog posts. If you have one or more nonfiction projects you’ve been busting to start or finish, then becoming a NaNo Rebel is for you. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is a huge accomplishment and one to be proud of, even if it’s not the draft of a novel as NaNo was originally intended.

Joining NaNoWriMo is Easy, and Free

Sign up here, define your novel (as a Rebel, ignore the term “novel”), and start writing on November 1st. Whether you reach 50K words or not, you are eligible for sponsor offers as a participant, such as Scrivener at 20% off. If you want to be eligible for winner offers (50% off Scrivener, for example), validate the word count of your “novel” by November 30th.

Along with perks at the end, you’ll get plenty of encouragement along the way with pep talks, writing resources, forums, and virtual write-ins. And you’ll have the chance to meet other participants and attend “real” write-in events (check out your region for these).

Two Undisputed Rules

Whether you win NaNoWriMo the traditional way by writing the draft of a novel or by going the Rebel route and breaking the rules, follow these two unofficial rules to reach your goal:

  • Just Write (to watch your word count soar), and
  • Don’t Stop to Edit. The goal is a first draft in thirty days. You’ll have plenty of time to edit later.

Still on the Fence?

  • Find out more about NaNoWriMo on this page, including its nonprofit status, mission statement, and a list of published WriMos.
  • Check out this NaNo forum for Rebels.

Be a Rebel – finish the draft of your nonfiction project this year!


If November doesn’t work for you, plan to join Camp NaNoWriMo in April and/or July (see “Accomplish Your Writing Goals with Camp NaNoWriMo“).

Handling Writing Rejection

RejectedStamp2Freelance writer and storyteller Peter D. Mallett recently stated that everyone identifies with three things: failure, hard times, and rejection. The response to his post “Receiving and Rising above Rejection” was greater than any article he’s written for his website Writing in Color and demonstrates how deeply we all identify with being rejected. For a two-part followup to that post, Peter asked four writers, including myself, specific questions about the topic as it pertains to our writing projects.

In part one of “Rejection Revisited,” Erica Hayes, a copywriter, and Deanne Schultz, a freelance writer, were asked how they push through the fear of rejection and how they handle rejection when it does come. Their wise and practical advice shows why they’re successful professionals in their field.

In part two, Jillian Lisa Pearl, a writer working on her debut novel, addresses the issue of depersonalizing rejection and her positive plan to deal with it. For my part, I was asked: Even today, what is your first gut reaction when you receive a rejection? What happens next, and how do you move forward? My response to handling rejection almost always involves copious amounts of Cheetos, peanuts, and ice cream.

To find out more about how the four of us deal with rejection in our writing life, please check out Writing in Color and Peter D. Mallett’s articles on the subject.

How do you handle rejection or the fear of it?

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Image “Rejected Stamp” courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

10 Things I Learned From WANA Con 2014

WANAConFeb2014-300x162WANA (We Are Not Alone) is an organization started by Kristen Lamb as a way for creative people to connect with each other to serve and support one another. WANA Con, their annual online two-day writing conference (in February), offered plenty of encouragement, as well as classes that focused on topics ranging from character development, scene structure, and self editing to social media and website building – all at a cost far less than a “real” conference, and much more convenient.

I attended WANA Con 2014 wearing sweats and slippers, with a bowl of popcorn and a cold soda within reach, expecting it to be a good experience. But it ended up being a great one. Here are ten of the best take-aways from this year’s online conference:

1. Jami Gold: An Introvert’s Guide to Twitter
“First, let’s accept publishing guru Dan Blank’s challenge to not define ourselves as an introvert simply for a blanket excuse to avoid being social. As he points out, we can respect the ways we’re introverted while still taking social actions. Our introversion is a starting point for finding methods that work for us, not an excuse to avoid all social activities.”

2. Marcy Kennedy: Put Your Inner Editor to Work: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
A main character must be interesting and likeable – but just because you’ve written an interesting character doesn’t mean you’ve written a likeable one. “Your main character needs to be interesting enough that a reader wants to spend 10+ hours with them…The reader also needs to like them OR pity them OR want to see them get what they deserve.”

3. Marcy Kennedy: Put Your Inner Editor to Work: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers
A story needs an antagonist, but the antagonist is not necessarily a villain. “A villain is evil. An antagonist is just someone who’s standing in the way of your main character achieving their goal. You must have an antagonist. A villain is optional.”

4. Gilbert Clay and Stacy Brewer: PDMI Editorial Presentation
Writers have long been advised to know the rules before they break them. We also need to have good reasons to do so. Know the following before breaking the rules: what effect it will have on the story; if it will help tell a better story; how will it affect the reader’s experience. Just because a well-known author breaks the rules, doesn’t mean all writers should.

5. Ellie Ann Soderstrom: Collaboration Station
If you’re working with others to produce your book, it’s not a good thing to “defend your manuscript the way a mother bear defends her cubs. Your book is a gift, not a baby. If you want to write for yourself then keep it to yourself. If you want to write for others then give it to a trusted editor.”

6. Julie Duffy and Gabriela Pereira: Rock Your Revision
Rocking your revision starts with Character as Cornerstone – “get your character in place and trigger the domino effect.” Keys to a strong central character: an ordinary person who becomes extraordinary; a defining characteristic; the most interesting character in the story; must want something and need something (not necessarily the same thing).

7. Lisa Hall-Wilson: Beyond Basics: How to Write Effective Inner Dialogue
Internal dialogue is an indirect method of description. “That is, the writer does not directly describe a person, scene or event, but rather processes the description through the character’s consciousness. Once we enter a character’s internal world, we must consider how the character’s consciousness filters the description and shapes the telling of the tale.” ~ Word Painting

8. Shirley Jump: Writing the Compelling Scene
There are two types of scene goals:
♦ The Author’s Goal • What do you want to accomplish in this scene? • How will doing this change your reader’s perception of your character? • How will doing this increase the tension? • How can you accomplish your goals while showing (not telling) and using action instead of passive events?
♦ The Character’s Goal • What does the point of view character want in this scene? • What is so important about achieving this goal? • What will the POV character sacrifice in order to obtain this goal? • What actions will the POV character take to achieve this goal?

9. Sandra Brannan: Jumping Into Bed Between Explosions & A Firestorm of Bullets
Elements of plot can be found in CHOKE:
♦ Concern – Do I care? – Through belief in, and feelings for, the characters and understanding their conflicts.
Heighten Tension – The plot thickens: handicap your characters; aggravate, confuse, complicate; master the twists; readers need to be embroiled in conflict
Overload the Senses – Create crisis at the peak (“Oh, no!” and “Ah-ha!” moments), readers want to be surprised without feeling duped
Kill Switch – Explain the outcome (wind down the engine and let it cool off); readers want to see and feel the pieces being tied together, and suspension of unbelief but not the unbelievable
Ending – Tie up all the loose ends; readers should feel rewarded, satiated (best dinner date ever: good company, great food, didn’t overeat, no rush); leave readers craving the next book

10. J. E. Fishman – 8 Ways Nonfiction Colors Fiction
Research does not lend your story conflict, give your story structure, illustrate your protagonist’s moral dilemma, or shape your story arc (but fictional elements do). Nonfiction: Gives us a geography to borrow; Provides historical context; Provides social context; Leverages known stakes; Educates us and lends authority; Provides real-life characters to ground us; Reinforces theme; Builds a point of departure for real-life outcomes

WANA Con also offers attendees the chance to be credited for their conference fee through a giveaway. This year I was thrilled to be one of three people whose names were picked at random to receive this credit (which I promptly applied to other writerly odds and ends).

One of the best things about the conference was the reminder that I am not alone on this writer’s journey. I hope you’ll consider attending the next WANA Online Conference – I know I’ll be there.

Do you wanna be a part of WANA Tribes? Click here.

Have you attended a WANA Con before? If so, what did you learn?

4 Helpful Websites for Writing Memoir

Diana Jackson at A Selection of Reflections was kind enough to post an article I wrote about how I put This New Mountain together (and she gave it a great title, too). Visit her site to read “Writing Readable and Compelling Memoir.”

If you’re looking for places to glean great writing advice for memoir, here are four websites I’ve found helpful (plus a site to share your own life stories if you’re 50+).

NAMWlogo-variation-2-300x124National Association of Memoir Writers
The goal of NAMW “is to help memoir writers feel empowered with purpose and energy to begin and develop their life stories into a publishable memoir, whether in essay form, a book, a family legacy, or to create a blog.” Besides excellent articles, they also have public roundtable recordings of topics pertaining to memoir writing.

Memory TreeThe Heart and Craft of Life Writing
Tips, guidelines and insights on all facets of life writing, plus click on their Free Stuff tab for ebooks and timeline resources. Content includes author interviews and guest posts, as well as Sharon Lippincott’s own observations and tips from her book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.

Memories&Memoir2Memories & Memoirs
Linda Joy Myers says, “Most people who write memoir are searching for memories that validate their experience, but they worry about writing the truth. A memoir is not a factual recitation of history, it’s a recollection, a musing and merging of images, dreams, reflections moments on your life’s journey.”

memoirWritersJourney3Memoir Writer’s Journey
You’ll find a wide range of posts from exploring themes to social media tidbits on Kathy Pooler’s website. She’s “a writer and a retired family nurse practitioner working on a memoir about the power of hope through my faith in God. Hope Matters. I believe we are all enriched when we share our stories.”

ElderStorytellingPlaceBannerThe Elder Storytelling Place (A Time Goes By Weblog)
This is a site for bloggers/non-bloggers 50 years old and older to share their stories. “Sad, poignant, happy or funny, not infrequently our stories contain lessons we have learned and the wisdom we’ve gathered on our long journey through life and that should not be lost — which is what led to this blog.” Ronni Bennett, the founder of the site, wants it be a place “where readers sit a spell and ‘listen’ to other people’s stories. And then tell their own.”

What websites do you recommend for those interested in writing memoir?

Why Use a Pen Name?

man with penDeciding whether or not to use a pen name is just one of many choices writers have to make when preparing to publish. It’s an easier decision for some than for others.

Two years ago I published This New Mountain under the pen name Cate Macabe. I had never intended to write a memoir (not mine or that of a private detective/grandmother), but from the start of that journey I knew I would use a pseudonym. My reasons were simple: 1) I write science fiction and fantasy, and I didn’t want to confuse future readers who might someday search for my other work; and 2) my writing style is significantly different for the memoir and my speculative fiction.

If you’re not sure taking on a pen name is right for you and your writing, here are ten reasons in favor of using one, followed by possible complications if you do.

Why to Use a Pen Name

  • Need to separate genres – keep them separate if your audience has different expectations (children’s books vs. erotica)
  • Recognize that gender names sell better in specific genres
    • women for romance, men for science fiction
    • some names bring to mind a specific type (strong, manly names for military or crime fiction, girly names for chick lit)
  • Your real name is too hard to pronounce or spell, or sounds “ugly” or silly
  • Create a brand or persona (a name to identify with; catchy, easy to remember)
  • Separate your work as a writer from your private life or from your profession
  • Avoid confusion – your real name is the same as another author or celebrity, or a personality/profession you don’t want to be identified with
  • Your real name is too common
  • Present your work without the pressure of living up to a previous success
  • Different writing styles – readers come to expect a consistency in style
  • Fresh start – if previous work has not sold well

Complications

  • People might see you as being phony or trying to hide something.
  • People who know you under your real name might have trouble finding you and your work
  • Payments – for indie authors, make sure payments are made out to your real name or that you can take payments under your pen name
  • If published under one name already:
    • You start from scratch – not all readers will follow you to your new work, messes with branding
    • Social media – keeping up with posting under different names (maybe separate websites, too)
    • Contract violation – some contracts forbid publishing under a different name or in a different genre

Choosing to use a pen name is a decision that should be made carefully, knowing it will add complications to your life (and deciding which one to use is even more complex). Rachelle Gardner, author/blogger/editor, gives this advice for those considering using a pen name:

We’re not going to completely get away from pseudonyms, since there are real reasons people use them. However, for now I’d say, only use [a pen name] if it’s crucial – if there’s no other way. And if you use one – it’s best to use only one name in your online presence – website, blog, Facebook, Twitter. Just inhabit that name and become it.

If you’d like to find out which authors use a pseudonym, go to this site for a comprehensive list.

Have you thought of using a pen name? Do you already use one for your writing or an online presence?

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Image “Carrying Pen” courtesy of rattigon / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Pacing

3D Man on Green Arrow3The best books give us a varied experience of pace. They create continual shifts in our perception of time as we read, expanding and contracting based on what’s unfolding on the page….Some scenes demand a slowing of the pace, a settling in and luxuriating over minute details. Some demand a quick, surface treatment that moves us along with very little feeling of traction. ~ Lorin Oberweger

Pacing is essentially the speed at which prose flows, evidenced by the reader’s engagement. A study of your favorite book, the one that keeps you turning pages late into the night, will reveal a perfection of pacing. The opposite is true of a book that takes you out of the story with bogged-down narrative. In this case you might find yourself cursing the author with, “Oh, please get on with it. I can’t suffer through more description of ball gowns and medieval livery.”

Pacing as it applies to story
A well-told story carries a reader into a character’s life but moves quickly through those parts which don’t directly impact the main storyline or conflict. This would be information the reader needs to know, but a brief mention or presentation through summary is sufficient, such as relaying bits of back story, observations about the weather, or a transition or passage of time during which nothing truly important happens.

Example: A man is dressing for his wedding, but the day has been filled with omens that make him wonder about the future. It might not be necessary to go into the details of looking for lost car keys, changing a flat tire, stepping in dog poo, and ordering broccoli and beans for lunch. A summary will do, unless the specifics are important for the story later on.

It’s just as necessary to slow down the pace during portions of a story that are more intense physically and/or emotionally. Take the time to set the mood through description. Unfurl the emotional state of your characters, plant seeds of mystery.

Examples: Recounting a tragic event such as a murder (which might happen quickly in real life) would be made more powerful by presenting it slowly. And there are moments that stretch out and become important for the epiphany that follows. I once had the pleasure of falling backward off a telephone pole from 20 feet off the ground. The world passed by in slow motion as I watched clouds float across the summer sky – right before I slammed into the ground.

Pacing as it applies to structure
Think variety when forming sentences and paragraphs. Reading sentences of the same length and rhythm becomes boring after a short period of time. In general, vary their lengths by using short, long, and compound constructions. Also vary paragraph size. Keep in mind that large blocks of text slow the reader down – a good thing if that’s the effect you’re trying for, but huge paragraphs can also signal information dumps.

The way a scene or chapter begins and ends also impacts pacing. Cliffhangers (not necessarily literal or extraordinary) are a good way to entice a reader to turn the page, but can be overdone. Structuring the end with hints of what’s to come, leaving a situation unresolved from one chapter to the next, or dropping in a new conflict will keep a reader wondering what will happen next. Begin a new scene or chapter with something happening, close to the heart of the action. Again, variety and writing with an awareness of what you’re trying to accomplish in a particular scene or chapter will keep the story flowing unhindered in the right direction.

Here’s a table with suggestions on how to speed up and slow down the pace of your story. Go to Controlling the Pace of a Story for the pdf version.

Controlling the Pace of a StoryPerfecting story pacing is a skill that comes with time, whether through years of practice or by focusing on it during the editing process. It’s one of the most important elements of any fiction or nonfiction project for keeping the reader engaged through the end.

So, think of pacing as the lungs of your story, which expand and contract as more oxygen is needed to breathe life into your scenes. Where your scenes merit it, don’t be afraid to take a deep, deep, breath and let it out ever so slowly. Your reader will breathe and live along with you, which is, after all, the power of a good read. ~ Lorin Oberweger

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Image “3d Man On Green Arrow” courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Five Poisons That Paralyze Your Writing

chemistBill O’Hanlon was the speaker at the SouthWest Writers first Saturday meeting of 2014. O’Hanlon is the author of Write is a Verb: Sit Down, Start Writing, No Excuses and has authored or co-authored 35 other books. Besides being a prolific writer, he’s the kind of speaker who makes you laugh and think and get motivated to follow your dreams. In the case of his January presentation, he suggested five poisons that many writers succumb to and the antidotes to overcome them.

1.  Perfection Poison
Writers who fall prey to this deadly poison get lost in their desire to make sure everything is perfect before starting to write. This might include acquiring the right computer and the programs to go with it, fixing up a writing space, waiting for the right time of day or night or season to write, acquiring writing skills, amassing research (everything must be known before starting).

Antidotes
♦ Give yourself permission not to be good (to write the worst book ever).
♦ Be willing to be radically edited, torn apart and made better.
♦ Start writing.

2.  I-Don’t-Have-Anything-New-To-Say Poison
This is another lie writers might tell themselves, and it can stop them from penning the first word: All the stories have already been told. But no one can write the story like you can – you have a unique style, voice, and slant. Every musician is limited to using the same 12 notes, but listen to the uniqueness of what each produces.

Antidote
♦ Remember that everyone is profoundly weird – embrace your weirdness.

3.  I-Don’t-Have-Time Poison
This is probably the excuse writers use most often not to write. With so many demands on our time, it’s easy to let this poison take over and keep us from our writing dreams.

Antidotes
♦ Do something writing-related everyday, even if it’s only to sharpen pencils.
♦ Make a commitment, set your priorities. If you want to write, you’ll make the time – even just 5 minutes a day.
♦ Consider: Maya Angelou wrote at her kitchen table before going to work, with children crawling on her lap.
♦ Consider: Bill O’Hanlon wrote 10 books in 10 years and had three kids to support and nurture.

4.  This-Will-Never-Get-Published Poison
Understanding why you write is key to overcoming this poison. O’Hanlon believes four things motivate or fuel your writing: being blissed, blessed, pissed, or dissed. He calls these a Writer’s Energy:

1. blissed – you love to write
2. blessed – you’re encouraged to write
3. pissed – you’re angry enough to write (righteous indignation)
4. dissed – [prove someone wrong and] turn that sensitivity into fuel for your writing

Antidotes
♦ Figure out how to write without knowing you’ll get published.
♦ Try again, fail again, fail better.

5.  I’m-Not-In-The-Mood-To-Write Poison
You’re not inspired to write. Your muse is just not showing up. What if the muse never pays a visit?

Antidotes
♦ Show up and the muse will, too. Start writing, it will take care of those moods.
—  F. H. Bradley: The mood in which my book was conceived and executed, was in fact to some extent a passing one.
—  Madeleine L’Engle: Inspiration comes to you while you’re writing rather than before.
♦ Treat it as a profession – do the job and you’ll find your groove.
♦ Remember: the more you write, the better you get.

Wherever you are is always the right place. There is never a need to fix anything, to hitch up the bootstraps of the soul and start at some higher place. Start right where you are. ~ Julia Cameron

What have you found to be the best antidotes for the poisons that paralyze your writing?

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Image “Chemist With Test Tubes And Flask” courtesy of cooldesign / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Writing a Memoir Like a Novel: Scene Structure

A scene is like a single member of a family – it is loved for its own individuality – but its greatest power is its contribution to the larger group. ~ Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

ID-100201658If you read fiction, you’re already aware of scene structure (even if only at a subconscious level), because that’s how stories are put together. A short story might be comprised of only one scene, a novel of one or more scenes per chapter. The larger story arc of a novel or memoir is made up of dozens of smaller beginning-middle-end story arcs strung together in scenes. If you want your memoir to read more like a favorite novel and less like a dry textbook, an understanding of the fictional elements of a scene is essential.

In “How to Write Vivid Scenes,” Chris Eboch describes a scene and its elements:

[A] scene is a single incident or event. However, a summary of the event is not a scene. Scenes are written out in detail, shown, not told, so we see, hear, and feel the action. They often have dialog, thoughts, feelings, and sensory description, as well as action. A scene ends when that sequence of events is over.

But

It’s not enough for a scene to be emotional or funny or colorful or scary. It must have a reason to be in your novel…. I have read scenes that seemed more like window dressing than an integral part of the story. ~ Diane O’Connell, “The Five Biggest Mistakes in Writing Scenes

Basically, a scene presents a character or characters doing something within a particular setting, and uses dialogue, action, and narrative to do such things as: advance the plot, reveal personalities and motives, impart necessary information, or tie into the theme in some way. Characters are a given. Action and purpose are essential.

As an example, two sisters discussing which pair of socks go best with their father’s Army uniform does not comprise a scene. Place the sisters (and their conversation) beside a stainless steel table in a funeral home and the promise of a story begins to surface. But it doesn’t become a scene unless some kind of action takes place, whether physical or emotional – the sisters take on the task of dressing their dead father, a last chance to show their love for a man who had never allowed them entrance into his life.

In fiction, a writer builds his characters and scenes. He creates his world and decides what story to tell. But a memoirist must work with what has already played out. Either way, the writers job is to find the meaning in these stories, discover the history and the why of things – the truth as he sees it and/or the truth as it really is – and then decide how it should unfold. My essay Dressing the Dead went through many revisions before I found the truth in my own story and how this unconventional farewell fit into the larger picture of the man my sister and I never really knew.

When writing a scene, first you must concentrate only on the elements that make that scene work on its own as an isolated mini-story. But eventually you must judge each individual scene’s effectiveness according to how much it contributes to the work as a whole. ~ Raymond Obstfeld, Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes

Whether you’re a plotter and plan your story scene by scene ahead of time or write your stories as they come to you, it will be important at some point to evaluate your writing to make sure the scenes are complete and relevant.

Jami Gold makes this evaluation process easier with her checklist Elements of a Good Scene available as a free download from the Worksheets for Writers page of her website. The checklist is divided into three sections: Essential Elements (scenes should reveal at least one of these), Important Elements (scenes should reveal at least two of these), and Bonus Elements.

Elements of a Good SceneContinue down the Worksheet page to download an Excel spreadsheet that covers the same scene elements but in a format to keep track of multiple scenes. In fact, check out all of her story planning worksheets, including Save the Cat and Story Engineering beat sheets and a Scrivener template.

How do you keep track of your scenes and how they fit into the larger story?

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Image “Hands With Cubes A B C” courtesy of luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net