Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tip O'Day #426 - A Memorist's Voice

Guest blogger Cindy Zelman on “10 Million Links to Help Make Your Memoir Stand Out! (Part 2)”

Or, more simple advice for those new to memoir writing. (Scroll down to the previous blog post if you missed Part 1.)

Suggestion Number 3: Find your voice. You may know that the memoir market is glutted with terrifying and sad stories of sexual abuse, physical abuse, alcoholism, and drug addiction. Does that mean your own story on such topics won’t get the attention of an editor? Well, that may depend on voice. Voice in writing is what sets you apart. It’s a bit of an elusive term.

I will use an analogy to popular music. When you hear a Beatles’ song, you know it’s the Beatles. When you hear an Adele song, you know it’s Adele. Not because of how their voices literally sound, but because their entire presentation is in a unique voice. Four Beatles were vocalists and yet you always knew it was the Beatles playing on the radio, regardless of who sang lead. When you read something by one of your favorite authors, you know it’s that author without even looking at the book jacket. Why? Because of voice, the sound that the writer generates, a tone and an attitude embedded in the writing, that makes his or her writing unique, a DNA stamp of sorts.

One way to develop voice is to write naturally and to write often. Practice. Don’t try to force flowery language or humor or pathos. Write the first draft of your memoir as if you were telling the story to a friend sitting next to you. So, keep on writing and practicing until your voice emerges and your story of drug abuse doesn’t sound like anyone else’s.

Suggestion Number 4: Revise…and revise some more. Did you hear that? REVISE! Then REVISE again! Show your manuscript to friends, enemies, writing workshop participants, teachers, and then REVISE again! (Don’t overuse exclamation points in your writing!) Put the draft away for awhile, reread it, and revise yet again.

Those are my four simple steps to writing a good memoir. Easy right? Absolutely. Not. Writing a memoir is akin to writing a novel and it takes time, but if your story is worth telling, take the time. Don’t worry about the market. There are periods when genres are “hot” as memoirs have been in the past decade, and then they cool off – as they may have at the moment. But I firmly believe if you write a great manuscript, put the time and effort into it -- and that can take years -- eventually, it will find a home, no matter the genre.

I leave you here, with what should be suggestion number 5: read some great memoirs. Here are a few to start with:

Lucky by Alice Sebold
The Liar’s Club by Mary Karr
The Chelsea Whistle by Michelle Tea
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggars
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III

So, go to it, writer friends, get down to your writing. And remember there are 3 – 10 million links out there to help you make your memoir stand out, so if this post has not been helpful, Google it and good luck.

Cindy Zelman is a creative nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in numerous journals including Feminist Studies, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, The Whistling Fire, and Cobalt Review. She is finishing a full-length memoir about how panic disorder and a dysfunctional childhood have affected her romantic relationships. You can read some of her work on her blog, The Early Draft.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tip O'Day #425 - Finding Emotional Truth

Guest blogger Cindy Zelman on “10 Million Links to Help Make Your Memoir Stand Out! (Part 1)”

Or, some simple advice for those new to memoir writing.

If you Google the phrase, How to make your memoir stand out, you will receive 3+ million hits within a few seconds. Sometimes that phrase yields up to 10 million hits. Either way, that’s a lot of information. Who am I to give you advice with such a crowd of experts waiting for you to click on a link or 3 million? As a blogger and a writer whose focus is creative nonfiction, both essays and memoir, I can offer you some down home suggestions -- nothing proven or promised, but helpful ideas I’ve picked up along the way from other writers, editors, and publishers.

I would begin by telling you not to listen to people who say you must lead an exciting life to write a publishable memoir. BS, people, BS! Yeah, sure, it helps to be Cheryl Strayed and have hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Washington State all alone. To add to the spice of her memoir, Strayed had never been a hiker and decided to hike 1,000+ miles to find inner peace after the death of her mother and a divorce from her spouse. This doesn’t sound like your life? You don’t find yourself praying you don’t run out of water lost up in a mountain somewhere? You’re not a beautiful blonde adventurer who would look good on Oprah?

Me neither.

Just because your life is a little quieter than Chery Strayed’s, that doesn’t mean you can’t write a great memoir. Even if the most exciting thing you do is stay home and crochet afghans, you can write a compelling memoir. It’s all in how you tell the story.

Did I just say “story?”

Suggestion Number 1: Tell a story. Just as a novelist tells a story in fiction, a memoirist should always keep story in mind when telling her tale. Of course, one distinction between fiction and memoir is that your story needs to be true. By true, I don’t mean absolutely, 100% factual, because a memoir is not a news article. I’m not interested in all the arguments about objective truth, since personally, I do not believe it exists.

If you are to write credible memoir, stay as close to memory as possible. Finding the emotional truth in your story is essential. The emotional truth is what readers want in memoir – not the chronological facts of your life. A this happened and then that happened approach is autobiography, not memoir. You reach deeper in memoir to provide a story arc, to feel and see and interpret the aspect(s) of your life and the world which you are writing about.

For example, you might not remember the color of your father’s sweater when he took you to the ball game, right before he left you and your mom forever, but you remember how it felt when he took you to that game. What would the color of the sweater need be, to evoke the emotional truth of being with your Dad for the last time? Make his sweater that color, the color of how it felt. It’s okay to imagine, just don’t lie about having had a father who took you to the ball game and then left home, leaving you and your mom to fend for yourselves. That part needs to be true. The part about the sweater color can be imagined as a method for showing the emotional truth. If it makes you uncomfortable to make up the color, you can alert your readers that you are imagining. “I think his sweater was blue,” or “I imagine his sweater to be blue,” are ways to tip off the reader that you are unsure. Readers are okay with that.

If research and interviews help to jog your memory and go deeper into the story, then go for it. I recently had an experience where someone I never wanted to hear from again found a short memoir published by an online journal. She contacted me and pushed back about some of the situations I described. I must give her credit that our discussions led to a better and deeper story. People who are familiar with the story you want to tell can help to jog your memory, but remember, it’s your story to write, not theirs.

So, tell us a story.

Suggestion Number 2: Write well. It may sound self-evident but there are people who think if they throw something down on paper about their lives, it’s worthy of readers. If you plan to write about how knitting afghans for the last 30 years has made you the spiritual person you are today, starting when you were a 15-year old feeling alone and friendless and borderline suicidal, and ending your story in middle-age, where the afghans are what saved your mortal soul and now define your very essence –- write that story well. It’s an awesome story: surviving your demons through crocheting is your own Pacific Crest Trail hike. However, your sentence structure, diction, and grammar need to be clear, concise, and correct. Make sure there are no spelling errors. (I am saying all this to myself, by the way.)

Cindy Zelman is a creative nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in numerous journals including Feminist Studies, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, The Whistling Fire, and Cobalt Review. She is finishing a full-length memoir about how panic disorder and a dysfunctional childhood have affected her romantic relationships. You can read some of her work on her blog, The Early Draft, found here.
Part 2 of Cindy’s advice on memoir writing will appear here tomorrow, February 28th.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Saying for Writers #149 - Weingarten

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“All stories have to at least try to explain some small portion of the meaning of life. You can do that in 20 minutes, and 15 inches. I still remember a piece that the great Barry Bearak did in The Miami Herald some 30 years ago. It was a nothing story, really: Some high school kid was leading a campaign to ban books he found offensive from the school library. Bearak didn’t even have an interview with the kid, who was ducking him. The story was short, mostly about the issue. But Bearak had a fact that he withheld until the kicker. The fact put the whole story, subtly, in complete perspective. The kicker noted the true, wonderful fact that the kid was not in school that day because ‘his ulcer was acting up.’ Meaning of life, 15 inches.” – Gene Weingarten

A view of the Northern Rockies from my home in Kalispell, Montana.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Tip O'Day #424 - How to Start?

Guest blogger Jessica Knauss on “Creating an Exciting Beginning.”

I write in two genres. For short pieces and my contemporary longer fiction, I can honestly say that the first few lines drop into my head. It’s as if my muse says, Here you go. What happens next? It’s the most exciting part of writing and gets me enthused for the entire story, so I hope that enthusiasm is transmitted to the reader.

I was sitting at a table at my grandmother’s house, absently rubbing the bony part of my nose, when the first line of Rhinoceros Dreams appeared out of nowhere: “Allie had an outsized bump on the bridge of her nose that made her think she might be turning into a rhinoceros.” Although the story went through several drafts, the first line was a keeper from that moment.

On the other hand, the first line of Unpredictable Factors in Human Obedience involved the main character ordering vegetarian substitute bacon for the charity dinner that figures in the climax. Once the first draft was finished, I realized I no longer needed the part about the fake bacon. I cut it so the story starts with a hint at the main character’s self-absorption, but I’ll never forget that the story would not have come into being if not for that lost sentence.

My current WIP, a New Adult paranormal tentatively titled Middle Awash in Talent, begins this way:

When my little sister staggered through that rough-hewn doorway, blood still dripping artistically from the slash across her bellybutton where they’d sewn her up, and declared that she no longer needed my attention, she finally started to seem interesting to me.
Beth and I started off on the wrong foot.

That crazy image, written during that time between sleep and waking, eventually led to a vivid narrator, a world where some people train to use their telekinesis or other strange powers, and unexpected twists and turns at a breakneck pace all over the northern hemisphere. When I finish it as a novella or novel, I may change a few words of the beginning, but overall it has served the story exceptionally well.

My muse hasn’t been so generous with my historical novel. Although I’ve finished the first draft of The Seven Noble Knights of Lara, the really inspired passages take place well within the book. In fact, I put so much pressure on myself to write an awesome beginning that I started with Chapter II. I’ve now gone back and forth with the beginning four or five times. Can it start slowly? Should the beginning with a bang be an entire chapter, or just a prologue-type fragment? How much of the bad guy should I show up front? What will draw the reader in? Once the novel gets going, all my beta readers have reported feeling like they’ve been transported to the year and place and can hardly put it down, but I’m far from figuring out what would make a new reader turn the first page.

I hope my editor can help with this decision. There’s still a chance the right beginning will drop into my head when I’m least expecting it, but that doesn’t seem like a very reliable method, if it’s a method at all. I’ve written The Seven Noble Knights of Lara much differently than anything else – it was well planned, while my contemporary stories are purely pantsed. So when I do figure out this beginning, I hope it’s a technique I can use for all the other historical fiction I’m planning. Wish me luck! Any suggestions are welcome.

Jessica was the first person to interview Dixon as a writer. She blogs at this link and provides updates about The Seven Noble Knights of Lara here.
For those unfamiliar with the word pantsed, this refers to the spectrum of writers, with planners at one end, and those who write by the seat of their pants at the other end. Thus, some authors refer to themselves as pantsers, and their prose could be said to be pantsed. Class dismissed.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Saying for Writers #148 - Jean Kerr

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

"Confronted by an absolutely infuriating review it is sometimes helpful for the victim to do a little personal research on the critic. Is there any truth to the rumor that he had no formal education beyond the age of eleven? In any event, is he able to construct a simple English sentence? Do his participles dangle? When moved to lyricism does he write 'I had a fun time'? Was he ever arrested for burglary? I don't know that you will prove anything this way, but it is perfectly harmless and quite soothing." – Jean Kerr

A soothing photo of snow on branches snapped somewhere in northwest Montana by local friend Sue Haugan. Hang this where it can be seen from your bathtub. After receiving a horrible review, pour yourself a glass of wine and climb in the tub for a long, hot soak.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Tip O'Day #423 - Flashing Back

Guest blogger Ben Drake flashes back to earlier today, when he had a question about flashbacks.

Does every flashback need a catapult?

I am a lover of the flashback. I recently read a very good story with several flashbacks in it, and I just wrote a story with some attempts at flashbacks on my book site. They are not as easy as one would think. An editor I know has told me about one rule for flashbacks – there needs to be a trigger for them.

But what about when the character is insane? In my own mind I don’t need a flashback catapult when I am transported back into the actual, strong memory. Then again, it has been said that I do not have the soundest of minds.

Dixon says: Thanks, Ben. In my opinion, there’s only one rule for a flashback (or a flashforward) – you need to be absolutely clear when you’re going into and coming out of the flashback.

Flashbacks can be any length at all. They can be one phrase long – The smoke from the fire made Paul break out in a sweat, taking him back to the burning crack house in Phoenix when he accidentally shot an innocent kid. They can be a hundred pages of longer. In the novel The Godfather, there’s a huge flashback right after Sonny’s wedding, going back to Don Corleone’s youth in Sicily. I’ve seen books where the opening and closing chapters are bookends, in the present tense, and the rest of the story is a flashback. An example of that is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

The Liberty Valance short story by Dorothy Johnson (as well as the movie) is also an example of a flashback within a flashback, when Sen. Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) reveals that Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) actually shot bad guy Liberty Valance. To get even more complicated, there are cases of a flashback within a flashback within a flashback, such as Six Degrees of Separation.

It’s easy when the flashback starts and ends at chapter breaks. Thirty years earlier makes a nice transition. The same thing goes for a scene break. When the flashback occurs in the middle of a scene, the author needs to go out of her way to ensure clarity without jerkiness, both going in and coming out. My suggestion is to do your best and then show it to some critique partners (beta readers) to see if what’s in your mind works on the page.

As for Ben’s question about an unbalanced character, if that person has already been established as unreliable, there’s no reason a flashback shouldn’t work. In my WIP, a thriller tentatively titled Montana is Burning, there’s a schizophrenic character named Winnifred who holds lengthy discussions with her dead mother, her son (who may or may not have been aborted), the devil, and various imps. If Winnifred tells you today is Saturday, you’d still better check a calendar. Her flashbacks are some of the most entertaining parts of the novel, even though the reader isn’t sure whether they actually occurred.

Ben’s guest post was a fine example of brevity. Unfortunately, I rarely demonstrate that talent.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Saying for Writers #147 - Hemingway

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

"The parody is the last refuge of the frustrated writer. Parodies are what you write when you are associate editor of the Harvard Lampoon. The greater the work of literature, the easier the parody. The step up from writing parodies is writing on the wall above the urinal." – Ernest Hemingway

Dixon says: I enjoy collecting quirky quotes, and have unearthed quite a few from both Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway. The following and many other writing tips were gathered by Larry W. Phillips into his 1984 book, Ernest Hemingway on Writing. The Open Culture website created their list of seven favorites for a post on February 19th at http://tinyurl.com/bxj3ljz as follows:

1. To get started, write one true sentence.

2. Always stop for the day while you still know what will happen next.

3. Never think about the story when you’re not working.

4. When it’s time to work again, always start by reading what you’ve written so far.

5. Don’t describe an emotion -- make it.

6. Use a pencil.

7. Be brief.

I’ve heard that Hemingway would start each day’s writing session with a few freshly sharpened pencils. When they were worn down to nubs, it was time to stop writing and head for the nearest watering hole. Don’t know is that is true, but it’s part of the Hemingway legend.

It could be true.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tip O'Day #422 - "I'm No Cop"

Guest blogger Mark Sadler on writing from first person point of view.

I had always baulked at writing in the first person because it just seemed, well, so personal. Surely one would have to be experienced in whatever the subject matter was to pull it off. I write suspense and police procedurals and really have a vivid imagination rather than experience so it would probably come off weak. That’s what I told myself, anyway. As I started to write my current project, I actually started in the first person and then switched as it felt false and weird. However the more I wrote, I realized that telling the story as a cop from the first person standpoint brought more of a charge to what I felt as I wrote.

I was totally unprepared for what was to come. As writers we all know that our characters take us where they want to go, which is not necessarily the direction we thought they should. As my protagonist drifted through the present and into his past, the emotions that were brought up as he took me where he had been as a child brought tears to my eyes. As I witnessed my mother being strangled to death, as it were, I was able to understand his path through the current stages of the novel.

Now I have never been a cop, and never experienced the horrible nightmares this poor child experienced. I never knew the consequences on an abused child later in life, nowhere close. Does that make me less of an expert, less able to issue commentary on the subject? Of course not. No one ever asked Stephen King what he knew about living under a dome or time-travel. We writers are all readers of other authors’ works, and of real-life news events. We all use these for inspiration, woven together with our own thoughts and experiences. If your book lacks emotional attachment, try putting yourself in the shoes of your protagonist and watch the flavors pop!

Mark’s thriller, Blood On His Hands, is available in paperback and Kindle here and you can learn more about him at his website www.markpsadler.com

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Tip O'Day #421 - Whose Dream?

Guest blogger Gary Ponzo writes on “Chasing the Dream 101.”

Recently I became acquainted with an ambitious writer who's chasing the dream to become a published author. He'd read one of my books and asked if I would meet him for drinks to discuss my travels along this path. When we got together one of the first questions he asked was, "So how do I go about getting published?" To which I responded, "Is your book finished?" Well, you seem like a very smart audience so I'm sure you've already guessed that he hadn't even started writing a book yet.

You see, asking about the publishing process before you've finished polishing off your book is like a golfer asking what they should wear to the champions dinner before even entering into an event. Or learning the sport.

We ended up having a terrific evening of drinks and appetizers. Hours later I agreed to exchange chapters with him so we could critique each other's work along the way. I'm always searching for new eyes for my writing and he was excited about the idea of working together.

Now fast forward a month. This writer sends me the first 40 pages of his book to review and we agree to meet once again for drinks to discuss his writing. He was an English major and had probably one of the strongest command of narrative I've ever seen. There was no doubt he could write. His story began with a young woman trapped in a torrential rain storm up in the mountains where a strange man finds her unconscious and keeps her safe and sheltered through the night. I was fascinated to find out where the story was going, only to discover the woman fantasizing about having sex with her rescuer the moment she awakes. By fantasizing, I mean a body-thrusting, orifice-penetrating, erection-filled sexual fantasy that would make Hugh Hefner blush. Two scenes later, she's reminiscing about the first night she'd slept with her husband and explained parts of her anatomy her gynecologist hadn't thought of checking.

Although these sexual interludes were sandwiched between some very intriguing story lines, I was curious if the writer knew exactly what type of story he was writing. Surely he understood that this was an erotic novel, right? Wrong. He told me that the sex scenes stop after the second chapter, but that his wife told him to throw some steamy action into his book because, well, sex sells. He doesn't even like writing that stuff, he was just trying to tap into the E.L James fan base.

Everything I've just told you is true. And I'll bet this isn't the only instance of a writer chasing after a dream which turns out to be someone else's. Getting anything published these days is hard. Just try selling a short story to a literary magazine with a circulation of 300. It's damn tough.

I am certainly no expert on which path to take on the way to success (whatever that may mean to you). Please, if you really want to chase the dream to become an author, and maybe even develop some loyal readers along the way--chase your own dream. You will have very few regrets along the way.

A Touch of Greed, Gary’s latest thriller in the Nick Bracco series can be found on Kindle here. The next Nick Bracco novel will be released in a few weeks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Tip O'Day #420 - Don't Wimp Out

Guest blogger Jeff Mariotte on keeping in shape.

You write with your writing muscles.

Like any other muscles, you've got to use them, exercise them, keep them in shape. If you let them atrophy, they won't be there when you need them. If you take care of them and work them out regularly, they will.

So write.

A lot.

It doesn't necessarily make writing any easier, but it almost invariably makes your hard work turn into something better.

Jeff Mariotte has written over 45 novels and numerous comic books, mostly in the supernatural thriller, horror, western and suspense thriller genres, as well as nonfiction works about serial killers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the like. You can find the paperback of supernatural thriller Season of the Wolf here.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Saying for Writers #146 - W. Zinsser

A Quote which Might (or Might Not) Inspire You to Write:

“I almost always urge people to write in the first person… Writing is an act of ego and you might as well admit it.” — William Zinsser.

Dixon says: I think it depends on the story. Moby Dick would have been a completely different tale if told in first person by Captain Ahab. Having the uneducated deckhand Ishmael as an unreliable narrator created a unique dynamic. Generally, though, writing in the first person – especially first person present tense – lends an air of immediacy to a story.
First person does create complications. Events taking place elsewhere must be reported to the protagonist in a realistic manner. There’s also the danger that the POV character will end up “living in the head” too much. I felt that was the case in the Hunger Games trilogy. The movie version of the first book avoided all the internal monologue, choosing instead the more traditional cinema approach of what you see is what you get. To me, the result was a more thrilling adventure, while still keeping most of the essential story elements.