Saturday, October 29, 2011

Polishing your memoir for publication

Wednesday I encouraged you to discern whether you’re in the Tweaking is Torture camp or the Polishing is Pure Pleasure camp. (See Two types of memoir writers: Which are you?*)

If you’re aiming for a professional, published memoir with book-signings and speaking engagements and press releases and royalty checks, you need to be in the Polishing is Pure Pleasure camp—or if “pure pleasure” is too fanatical, join the Polishing is a Priority pack.

Even the most talented writers belong to the Polishing is a Priority pack.

Whether you choose the traditional publishing route with an agent and publisher, or the increasingly attractive self-publishing route, you must concern yourself with the art and craft of writing: grammar, punctuation, diction, style, editing, rewriting, polishing, and so much morenot with your first draft, or even your fifth, but before your final draft.

Roseanne Rini has this advice for writers: "In my experience, writers tend to stop themselves by being overly concerned about mistakes or what their reader might think about what they're saying. I always tell people to set those concerns aside and just write what comes to them in the moment. The important thing is to get their thoughts down on paper or on the screen. Then they can go back and cut out what doesn't belong, correct errors, re-organize, etc. But with the first draft one should allow oneself total freedom." (emphasis mine; from

If you belong to the Polishing is a Priority pack, invest in a few excellent how-to books. My shelves house a number of well-worn volumes:

On Writing Well, by William Zinsser,

The Craft of Writing, by Donald M. Murray,

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White,

The Writer’s Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life, by Priscilla Long,

Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English and Plain English, by Patricia T. O’Conner,

Keys for Writers: A Brief Handbook, by Ann Raimes,

Proofreading Plain and Simple, by Debra Hart May,

1,818 Ways to Write Better and Get Published, by Scott Edelstein,

The Little Handbook of Perfecting the Art of Christian Writing, by Leonard Goss and Don Aycock,

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss,

An Introduction to Christian Writing, by Ethel Herr.

Yesterday I ordered a new book to add to my collection: The Plot Whisperer, by Martha Alderson, published only a few days ago. It looks like a valuable, inspirational resource for memoir writers.

WOW! Women On Writing is offering an online class, (an e-course), The Unwilling Grammarian, by Karlyn Thayer. It starts November 30, 2011, and lasts four weeks. Here’s an excerpt from the course description:

“Do you hate grammar like you hate snakes? This class, The Unwilling Grammarian, takes an easy and fun approach to grammar.… Students will look at grammar with a new perspective—not as a necessary evil, but as a study that's understandable and satisfying.”

Whether you plan to make a few photocopies of your memoir, for friends and family, or hope to publish a book you’ll find on bookstore shelves across the nation, your stories are important.*

“… Anytime someone grows and changes over time
on a deep and meaningful level
from the challenges they confront
and then shares that experience [with] others,
the memoirist empowers others to believe
that such a transformation is available to them, as well.”
Martha Alderson, author, The Plot Whisperer

What writing books and resources can you recommend? Do you know of any good writers’ conferences? Please leave a comment below.

*Related links:
Two types of memoir writers: Which are you?

Your stories are important,

Jeff Goins’ quote, 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Two types of memoir writers: Which are you?

A few of you are aiming for a professional, published memoir with book-signings and speaking engagements and press releases.

Others plan to make a few photocopies of your memoir for friends and family; you’re not dreaming of making it onto the New York Times Best-Seller list.

I applaud both kinds of memoirs! I’ve written both types and found equal joy and fulfillment in them.

If you’re not sure which type your finished memoir will be, let me ask:

Are you in the Tweaking is Torture camp or the Polishing is Pure Pleasure camp?

You’re in the Tweaking is Torture camp if you view grammar as an ambiguity and proofreading as punishment.

Toiling to include details* discourages you and writing leads* leaves you dismayed.

You’re in the Tweaking is Torture camp if you can't stand editing and revising your stories.

A few of you would rather have a tooth pulled without anesthesia than to fuss with a manuscript.

If you prefer writing your memoir in a less-than-rigorous manner and if royalty checks are not your goal—that’s OK! Really!

Your readers will treasure your memoir and you will have achieved your ultimate goal: Telling future generations what you’ve seen God do in and for you and your family (Deuteronomy 4:9, Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

On the other hand, if you’re in the Polishing is Pure Pleasure camp, you’re downright giddy working with words and sentence length and rhythm.

You stay up late into the night reading books and blogs about writing.

You get fired up over new writing tips and can’t wait to fine-tune your rough drafts.

You’re in the Polishing is Pure Pleasure camp if you lose track of time sitting in front of your computer screen: reworking and honing and rewriting.

You spiff up your manuscripts and welcome comments from your critique group.

Melissa Marsh’s words will resonate with you:

“When you're writing,
do you ever get that feeling of pure joy deep in your gut?
Like this is what you're supposed to be doing with your life?
Like this activity completes you?”
(Melissa Marsh, 

So, in which camp are you: Tweaking is Torture, or Polishing is Pure Pleasure?

If Tweaking is Torture describes you, and if stress and frustration bubble up when you face the craft and art of writing, I hereby give you permission to ignore my suggestions about those topics.

I’m serious!

Instead, focus solely on getting your God-and-you stories in writing. Always remember that’s your most important goal.

In my memoir classes, I say: Placing your stories in friends’ and relatives’ hands is your most important goal even if your memoir is not a literary masterpiece.

Recently the mailman delivered Sharon Lippincott’s The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing.* She preaches the same message. Take a look:

Sharon writes:

“… Writing even a little bit, even a single letter or story, is better than writing nothing.… None of my forebears wrote lengthy stories, but however short, I treasure them, and they are better than nothing.

“Don’t worry about what to say, or whether it’s worth the effort, or whether you have time to write a document the size of a James Michener novel. Anything you write will be better than nothing!” (Sharon Lippincott, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing*)

Whether you’re like me—I enjoy puttering around in my rough drafts and refining, adding this and deleting that—or you belong to the “Anything you write will be better than nothing” camp, sign up as a Follower of this blog (top right), or follow on e-mail (below the Followers’ photos) and I’ll dump heaps of tips and ideas on you in coming months.

“Whether or not you write well, write bravely."
Bill Stout

Next time: More on Polishing is Pure Pleasure

*Related posts:


In the right column, you’ll find a link to Sharon Lippincott’s blog, The Heart and Craft of Life Writing.
You can buy Sharon’s book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, through her blog.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

What inner qualities define your memoir’s main characters?

Today we’ll dig deeper into the exercise of bringing life to your memoir’s main characters—people who shaped your life, for better or for worse.

Why is that important?

First: You want people to read your stories. The more interesting your characters, the more likely readers will keep turning pages.*

Second, related to the first: Writing your memoir is more than a hobby. It is an important ministry to your family.* Your stories contain important messages, lessons, and values you want to pass on to your kids, grandkids, and generations to come. If they don’t read your stories, however, they’ll miss the wisdom and significance you want to pass on to them. 

Look through your rough drafts for vague, one-dimensional strangers. When you find them, add details so that your main characters—not every person, but key people in your vignettes—have personality and emotions and traits.


Last time we focused on sensory details* because they help readers feel they’re standing beside you, participating in your story. Write so your readers experience what you saw, smelled, felt, heard, and tasted.

For example, did he have body odor? Did she talk with a Scottish accent? Were his hands leathery? Did she comport herself like a ballerina?

It’s important, however, to go beyond sensory details, beyond physical qualities: Dig deeper and flesh out central people.

To do that, enlarge upon individuals who played significant roles in your life. What inner qualities define him or her? Tell readers about her moral fiber. What was going on in his heart, soul, spirit, mind?

How did she make decisions? What did his faith inspire him to do? Did he show you what courage is?

Did she model faithfulness? What did he teach you about forgiveness? Grace and mercy? Integrity? Honor? Tenacity? Hope? Self-control? How did he react in a crisis?

How and why did she turn the other cheek? How did he handle failure? What heartaches did she live with? What crosses did he silently bear?

Roy Peter Clark says it this way: “To bring a person to literary life requires not a complete inventory of characteristics, but selected details arranged to let us see flesh, blood, and spirit.” (from Keeping it real: how round characters grow from the seeds of detail, by Roy Peter Clark, at

ometimes a person’s negative character traits influenced you as much as another person’s positive attributes: 

What did bitterness do to her?
What prejudices did he hold and how did they impact family gatherings?
Did she act one way in public and another way at home?
What did her timidity prevent her from doing?
How did his fear hinder his faith in God?
How did she let disappointment shape her attitudes?
What were his blind spots?
Was she cold-hearted? Mean-spirited?

While you work on your central characters' "flesh, blood, and spirit," keep in mind the definition* and beauty and purpose of memoir:

Memoir includes pondering, examining, unraveling, musing, and retrospection

In light of your current knowledge, look for lessons God had for you in the people and events you write about.

How did key people—whether positive or negative influences—help you learn about yourself?

Did a vignette's main character strengthen your faith or turn your life around? 

Did he pull you down with him, or convince you to live your life differently? 

What did your experience teach you about God and His involvement in your life? 

Select details that pertain to your story and its focus. Write so your readers feel they’re acquainted with your most important characters.

Want some help? In this blog’s right sidebar, scroll down and click on The Bookshelf Muse icon. Once there, look through The Character Traits Thesaurus in the right column. You’ll have a lot of fun meandering through those resources!

*Related posts:

Are your stories important?

What is a memoir?

Capture your readers’ interest,

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Write life into your memoir’s characters

Invite readers into your memoir by bringing life to key individuals in your stories.

Roy Peter Clark, one of my favorite writing mentors, writes:

“In the best of cases—when craft rises to art—the author conjures a character that seems fully present for the reader, a man standing against that very light post waving you over for a conversation.” (from Keeping it real: how round characters grow from the seeds of detail, 

I like that: characters that seem “fully present for the reader.”

Write in such a way that central people in your story become more than a shadow in the corner—more than a stranger to your readers.

Write so readers feel they’re beside you and your characters, reliving your experiences with you.

How? By including specific details about the key people in your stories.

For starters, pay attention to sensory details: If your reader had stood with you in the presence of that person—a pastry chef, for example, or a dairy farmer—what would your reader have seen, smelled, felt, heard, and tasted?

Think about talking to your dad when you were a kid: Can you still smell his aftershave? Or the beer on his breath?

Kathleen Pooler, in her vignette Seeds of Faith, writes of the smell in her great-grandmother’s room: I sat on the edge of the bed and she pulled me close.… ‘God bless, God bless,’ she whispered. The musty scent of age lingered as she gently rubbed my back.”

Kathleen also writes of her great-grandmother, Her tiny hands felt smooth, like a soft leather glove.”  (Seeds of Faith,

Pin down a character’s often-quoted sayings: “It doesn’t always happen to the other guy, y’know,” or “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about!” or “If I had a nickel for every time.…”

Write so your readers see a person’s idiosyncrasies and gestures. Did she live life at a half-run, or did she plod through life? Did he make people uncomfortable by standing too close when he talked to them? Did she bite her fingernails? Did he make a funny little noise in his throat when he was nervous?

Incorporate a person’s facial expressions. What did your boss’s eyes look like when he got mad at you?

When you hid in the woods and smoked cigarettes on the way home from school, how could you tell, when you got home, that your mother had already found out? What did her face look like—her eyes, her mouth? Did her nostrils flare? What was her voice like? Did she yell, or did she give you the silent treatment? Did she pinch your ear? Did she cry? Or laugh?

Here’s how Jen Puckett describes her brother in A Great Cloud of Witnesses:

“… Austen was now in critical condition. ‘Wait,’ I began to question within myself. “My brother? The brother who is a handsome, rugged, solid mass of body-builder muscle? Whose fully tattooed arms I can’t fit both my hands around? My brother who has proudly walked away from many drunken bar fights with scars and wounds that he never even noticed? My brother whose square jaw, goatee, and gruff voice are characteristics of a down and dirty Harley Davidson lover? This brother? He can’t be lying almost lifeless in a hospital.…”

Note that Jen doesn’t include every detail about her brother’s appearance—she tells us nothing about his hair color, eye color, or height; they are irrelevant in this story. Jen gives us details only pertaining to Austen’s current predicament.

Pull out your rough drafts and breathe life into your stories' main characters. “… Pull your reader closer … into a sensory world that you and your readers can inhabit together” (Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir).

Next time: Beyond sensory details

Saturday, October 15, 2011

NAMW’s free memoir teleconference, plus other great resources for you

Today I’m excited to share these helpful, inspirational resources with you:

The National Association of Memoir Writers is showcasing talented authors and teachers who are experts in Creative Nonfiction and memoir for a FREE, one-day Teleconference on Truth or Lie—On the Cusp of Memoir and Fiction, scheduled for Friday, October 21, 2011. Everyone who signs up will receive an email with a link to listen to replays. Click on this link for more information:

At The Heart and Craft of Life Writing, Sharon Lippincott offers a long list of free writing resources. Her freebies include blank timelines. (See my two earlier blog posts about using timelines.*) Sharon offers a blank printable timeline (for filling in by hand) and a blank on-screen timeline (for filling on using your computer). Here’s the link:

Use this index to find articles about memoirs and memoir writing throughout Jerry Waxler’s Memory Writers Network blog:

The Writing Academy is a community of Christian writers who share a passion for telling the story of God's good news for a hurting world. The Academy offers a ministry of encouragement to Christian writers including a unique at-home study program in writing. Look into it at this link:

Be sure to check the right column here on my blog for other excellent blogs and their resources.

What is your ultimate purpose in writing your stories?

The Bible says, many times,
that God did things for people in the past
so that
they would see Him, know Him, believe in Him,
praise Him, and glorify Him.

He does the same for us today
so, here at Spiritual Memoirs 101,
we write stories about what He has done for us
so that othersour kids and grandkids, especially
will see Him, know Him, believe in Him,
praise Him, and glorify Him.

Happy writing!

*Related posts:

Your personal timeline will help your memoir’s readers   

The BEAUTY and BONUSES of memoir

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Capture your readers’ interest so they’ll keep reading your memoir

Your memoir’s potential readers have countless distractions luring them away from reading your stories.

Lots of us are aflutter with baseball—Which teams will go to the World Series?—and football: local schools, colleges, and pros. Then there are athletics in which our kids and grandkids play.

And there’s the walk for cancer, food drives, Bible studies, doctor appointments, and rummage sales.

We have lawns and gardens to groom, toilets to scrub, carpets to vacuum, meals to make, dishes to scrub, empty cupboards to restock.

There’s Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, texting, MP3 players, movies, magazines, and hobbies.

Your story is important* but because people are busy, they’ll spend time on only what promises to be worth their effort.

That means your stories must be more intriguing than all those distractions and choices before them.

How do you earn the right to be read? As a memoir writer, you must :

  • capture the reader’s interest so he’ll keep reading all the way to the end, and
  • invite the reader to experience your story with you.

How can you accomplish that?

One way, of several, is to follow the old “Show, Don’t Tell” rule.

Avoid telling your reader, “She was beautiful.” Instead, show your reader: Describe details, one at a time, as you see them—features you want your readers to see—which will make your readers conclude for themselves, “She was beautiful!”

Don't say it was ‘delightful’; make us say ‘delightful’ when we've read the description. You see, all those words (horrifying, wonderful, hideous, exquisite) are only like saying to your readers ‘Please will you do the job for me.’” (C.S. Lewis)

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (Anton Chekov)

Avoid telling readers "He was angry." Instead, show readers his clenched jaw, flared nostrils, red face, and cold flashing eyes. Let readers hear the yelling and the slammed door.

Instead of writing “old truck,” invite readers to ride with you. Describe the rusty-black ’52 Ford pick-up with its cracked leather seats. Tell your readers what it smelled like inside: hay? barn-stuff on the farmer’s boots? the old Collie that went everywhere with the driver? Let your readers hear the gravel crunch in the driveway and the low throb of the old Ford’s engine. Did the truck’s doors squeak when they opened? Did it have a radio? If so, what songs might you have heard on it?

From “Tell” to “Show”— an example

Original: A hippo stampede thundered through our camp the first night.

Revision: In the middle of our first night, the ground rumbled like an earthquake and your grandpa and I jolted awake. Within seconds I recognized hippo noises, and I knew what I heard—a stampede, right through our camp. Immediately I wondered if we had pitched our tent in their usual path because, if so, those spooked hippos would trample us to death. I asked myself, Should we get up and run? If so, where? Which direction? I couldn’t think straight, but it didn’t matter—I was so frightened I couldn’t move. The hippos thundered through our camp in about twenty seconds—which seems like a long time when you’re scared out of your wits—and then we heard colossal splashes in the lake as, one after another, they plunged in, their ghastly bellows and snorts echoing through the night. (from Grandma’s Letters from Africa, Linda K. Thomas,

Look over your rough drafts and ask yourself, “Where can I spice up my writing by showing instead of telling?” You’ll find that “showing” can be a lot of fun!

*Related posts:

Are your stories important?

The Power of Your Story