Day 4 of Just Write – Writing Advice From A Friend

Yesterday’s sunrise – nothing to do with my blog entry

“Tell them something they need someone to say for them.”

Today’s entry in my Just Write Challenge is on advice given to me by a longtime friend and writing mentor, via a messaging conversation. Perhaps some can relate to my frustration, and some can gain from his response:

ME: Can you believe I am STILL not done my Alaska book? It hovers over me constantly, like a fog — sometimes thicker, sometimes barely perceptible, but always there.

I keep thinking, “I should message [my friend] and tell him about my frustration in this regard.”

I don’t know why. Maybe because I know that you are interested in the book.

The more well-written books I read, the more I become aware of my shortcomings as a writer. It is a daunting task, to compile all the stories in an interesting-to-read manner. They are all interesting to me, but I want them to be interesting to the reader, too, lest they put the book down unfinished, as I do with so many books that bore me.
Over the past week or so, I’ve got it in my mind to start (again!) another book, that being the story of how I met [the ex], the process I went through with him as he tore me down, and how I finally escaped.
I’ve been urged to write that book many times by many people, but the thing is, I feel like it’s only interesting to those who know me. And I’ve seen so many biography type books on people who’ve been through abuse, to the point that I don’t like reading them at all.
Buuuut, maybe I will write it anyway.
And the thing that’s been going through my mind about it is that maybe I should write it from a third-person point of view, rather than me me me. That’s another thing with which I struggle in my books: it’s only ME. I’m not a famous person. I feel uncomfortable focusing on me. Maybe if I do it in third-person, I won’t feel quite that way

FRIEND: I use third person, for exactly that reason. As I hinted before, I think Dostoevsky is doing that much of the time — telling his own story.

I’ve been reading my second Fyodor Dostoevsky novel. His narrative is the best I have encountered, and I marvel that I have that opinion merely through a translation.

How much better in the original Russian?

So, it must be the story he has to tell.

In both novels, he tells of some of the same characters: A horrible man who cruelly whips and beats a horse to death. A poor college student who gets a theological paper published and becomes greatly elevated in social rank as a result. A busybody housewife of the unearned upper class.

I have no doubt that these are real people and events from his own life — powerful, iconic (for him) stories and characters. Those icons give us glimpses into his, the author’s, heart, mind, and soul.

Dostoevsky has a huge heart, a supple mind, and a beautiful soul.

I got bored in the first few chapters of the second novel, but I pressed on because I cared about what he wanted to share about hearts, minds, and souls — especially his own.

You, too, see humanity in those terms. You have beauty inside and out. You, too, have a faith that overcomes all.

Let the reader care about you, and they’ll read. Tell them something they need someone to say for them. Tell them, also, what they need to know, but probably do not realize.

They’ll keep turning pages.

ME: Thank you. I think I shall print out what you just wrote about Dostoevsky and keep it on top of my desk to refer to for encouragement. I have another such printout from [another friend]. My desk is becoming cluttered. I need to fix that.

FRIEND: In that way God has of making a point, [a mutual friend] just sent me a little story. She sent it, she wrote, because I had encouraged her to write stories that give the reader glimpses into her.

So she did, writing to her sister, and copied it to me, separately.

It was a perfect example.

Yes, it is more interesting to me, because I love you two, but any reader is going to love you two. Let them.

I am grateful for friends. I hope someday I actually finish both of those books. They might be of interest and of help to someone.

Patrick McManus – Great Writer Now Gone

I just found out that a year ago, in April of 2018, Patrick McManus died.

My heart tightened as I read about him no longer being on this earth.

He was right up there with the best of the best, as far as wordsmiths go, and yet most people, when asked by me if they’ve read his writing, have never heard of him.

Pat’s collections of short stories are mostly outdoor humour – things to do with hunting, fishing, camping, and other adventures. That right there is interesting to me, but with his humour and writing style, he could have set his stories on such distasteful (to me) topics as football or politics and caught my attention, as long as he spun them with his classy but crazy humour and smooth word choices.

“He was a gentleman and a scholar and a wordsmith,” the article below says of Pat.

I wish I knew him in person. I wrote to him once, in the mid 1990s, and he wrote back to me. What an encouragement that was!

Here is a link to an article someone wrote about Pat:

Patrick McManus Dies at Age 84

Memoir Writing Tenses

It’s a little bit creepy how it turns out that things about which I had only been thinking but hadn’t yet uttered aloud or even typed to anyone happen to turn up as a topic in a notification on my Facebook. The following link is one of them:

Writers Digest article on memoir structure

In case the article disappears from view someday, I will copy it in its entirety here.

5 Things to Consider When Structuring Your Memoir
September 12, 2018
by Cheryl Suchors

For some writers, structure appears like a bridge in the mist; for others, like myself, there’s only the mist. Several ingredients can be used to create a structure, like that bridge, that works for your book. You may know the answers to the considerations below right away, or you may need to experiment and discover them through the writing itself. Either way, memoir structure is as crucial as structure in fiction and no good memoir will be able to stand tall without it.

Memoir Structure: 5 Things to Consider When You’re Writing a Memoir

1. Order of Events

In some memoirs, Without a Map by Meredith Hall for example, the chapters jump forward and backward in time. This adds an element of unpredictability that both challenges and engages the reader.

Most memoirs, however, tend to flow chronologically. That is, they run through events in the sequence in which they happened. But even a chronological memoir isn’t purely chronological since the narrator is now an adult filtering past experiences through the lens of a wiser, more mature person. This is part of what adds richness to the tale.

If you can avoid a mostly chronological structure, good for you. You’ll benefit from the inherent complexity. But if, like most memoirists, you are using a chronological structure, there are still several techniques to help you avoid the pitfall of “first this happened, then that happened,” an approach that drains the life and tension from a book.

I stuck to a chiefly chronological structure in 48 PEAKS, Hiking and Healing in the White Mountains, while playing with various elements of structure to create movement and interest: storyboarding, sectioning, tense, and time.

2. Storyboarding

Basically, a book poses a central question or issue in the beginning and answers or resolves it, for good or ill, by the end. Storyboarding the rising and falling action that creates drama is a technique borrowed from film.

I learned how to use a storyboard to structure my memoir from Mary Carroll Moore, author of Your Book Starts Here. (She also does a youtube explanation, embedded below, and offers a wonderful blog on writing at marycarrollmoore.com.)

Essentially, there are five key points: the triggering event that gets the action rolling down toward the second point, a conflict or complication that gets worked through to create a rising action; the third turn which sends the action spiraling downward to the fourth point, the lowest point of the book, from which the action ascends to the fifth point or conclusion. These five points shape, in effect, a capital W.

Figuring out these five points provides the skeleton of your memoir. From there, one decides what must happen between each pair of points or leg of the W.

I wrote my five key points onto five brightly colored sticky notes and stuck them in their appropriate spot, creating a large W on a big piece of white cardboard. Each scene or action I thought belonged in 48 PEAKS went onto a sticky note. I placed the stickies somewhere between a pair of points. I moved certain bits around to even things out or build tension. Sometimes I had to create scenes to improve the flow, or delete those that weren’t integral to the rest of the book. In either case, it was easier to come to these conclusions because I could literally see the cogs that made the wheel of my memoir turn.

Once you’ve settled on the right order for your storyboard, see if it makes sense for your manuscript to be divided into parts. Sectioning can be a way of supporting your reader through the material in a way that we’re all so used to it doesn’t intrude as it guides.

My manuscript, for example, fell into two parts as neatly as an apple cleaved in half. (Not that I planned it that way.) A main character in the first half, for reasons I won’t go into here, disappeared in the second half. And that disappearance created a certain thrust for the second part.

From a story point of view, the sectioning made sense. It also, frankly, made the material easier for me to work with, since I was manipulating one half of the book at a time. I did have to go back later on to ensure themes wove the two halves together, but sectioning made earlier drafts less arduous.

4. TENSE

In what tense will you write your memoir? Present tense has the benefit of intimacy and immediacy; simple past is familiar, virtually transparent to readers, and can be easier to sustain for a book-length project.

My early drafts were written completely in the present tense because it helped me, the writer, feel again what I transcribed. But I experimented with the simple past as well and liked both ways. I couldn’t decide which to do, until a developmental editor suggested putting the first half in the past tense and the second half in the present. This idea appealed to me because, as a reader, I sometimes found books sagged in their middles. Switching at that point to the present tense introduced a novelty and a speed that I hoped would keep readers turning the pages.

Changing tenses worked because I began the book with a prologue that took place four years after the start of the book in chapter one. I wrote the prologue in present tense to establish that year as the narrative present. In this way, the whole first half was past tense because it had happened earlier. The second half of the book returned to the narrative present and took off from there.

5. Time

Flashbacks are another way to play with time and break up the chronological line. They not only add depth to characters but also create tension as the reader must wait for the story to move onward. Flashbacks were a handy device, I found, when I didn’t want to resolve a situation too quickly but wanted the drama to build for awhile.

You can also use long sections of narration in the same manner as flashbacks, breaking up the forward motion of the book with, in effect, pauses to consider a point, a whole chunk of history, or a theme. I advise using this technique sparingly; too many pauses or digressions can merely aggravate readers.

If it makes sense for your story, one can also create flash forwards, though these are typically brief and have to be handled with care so as not to jolt the reader.

Conclusion

Finding the structure that fits and supports your memoir takes effort. If you’re going with a primarily chronological order, as most of us do, a slightly playful attitude allows you to experiment, to stretch and pull the inherent drama from your story like taffy.

Above all, be patient. Persevere. If you keep at it, the structure that uniquely suits your memoir will come to you through the mist.

Perfectionism Is The Enemy

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
(She has a lot of good quotes. I’ve just ordered “Bird by Bird” so I can see the full deal.)
My blog isn’t one of those blogs where people make lots of comments and the discussion goes on and on. Sometimes, though, like right now, I wish for dialogue. If anyone has any thoughts to share on the Anne Lamott quote I have posted, please do.
(Edited to ask: WHY are the paragraphs not spacing properly in WordPress? Even though in the draft it shows that they are properly spaced, on the publicly readable section it runs them all together in here and it looks like crap.)