Thursday, November 21, 2013

Your memoir: make suspense reader-friendly

Suspense, tension, conflict. They are must-haves for your memoir. They draw readers into your story, make them care about you, and keep them reading.

Last week I shared a Chip MacGregor quote that I’ve been putting into practice in one of my rough drafts: I’m trying to make suspenseful passages more reader-friendly. Chip’s message: Readers don’t want to waste time in your long, drawn out moanings and groanings. They bought your book because they want to know how you solved your problem.

“Readers don’t buy books that ponder problems. They buy books that offer great solutions to problems. So offer solutions. Tell me what the answer is to my problem.”  He says we should go ahead and “set the stage by revealing what the conflict or problem is,” but (my paraphrase): Get on with it. Don’t wallow in your drama. Condense your drama. (Chip MacGregor, Memorable Words; emphasis mine.)

On the other hand, we can play downplay our suspense too much, according to K.S. Davis.

She teaches her students (both fiction and memoir writers) to beware of a “failure to sustain key moments.” Key moments: moments of tension and suspense and emotion.

In some of her students’ rough drafts, Davis discovered key moments “were just going by too quickly.” To remedy that, she advises, “…Writers, don’t be afraid to slow down and ‘linger.’ Make sure you are devoting sufficient space to the ‘key moments’ in your manuscript so that they register with your readers. Your writing will resonate much more clearly and vividly if you do.”

She says we “give the moment sufficient emphasis” by using dialogue, summarizing unspoken thoughts, and using nuance. (Read K.S. Davis’s full blog post, Lessons in Lingering.)

So, the combined message from Chip and K.S. is this:  Find a healthy balance in writing passages of suspense and drama and emotion.

You might be saying, “Easier said than done!”  I agree. Here’s what I’m doing and perhaps you’ll find it helpful, too:

I’m crafting a couple of versions of my vignette and playing around with the drama—condensing, reorganizing. (I’m so glad we live in the days of computers instead of typewriters! Back in the olden days, if we wanted to change just one word or comma on a page, we’d have to retype the entire page!)

After tweaking, I’ll set the manuscript aside for a week or so. Later I’ll take a fresh look at it and by then I should be able to see what works and what doesn’t.

What about you? What advice can you share about finding balance between too much drama and not enough? Leave a comment below.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sneeze post: Suspense

Sneeze post?! What’s a sneeze post?

Think of a sneeze. It distributes “stuff” in various directions.

A sneeze post “simply directs readers in multiple directions at once,” says Darren Rowse at ProBlogger.

Think of a sneeze post as a roundup, a collection. If you don’t like the thought of me sneezing on you, think of me handing you a bouquet.

Today’s sneeze post is a collection of quotes and links about suspense.

Your memoir needs suspense: It hooks your reader and makes him eager to know the outcome—but makes him wait for it. Suspense implies an uncomfortable waiting mixed with impatience for a good resolution. It arouses curiosity. It keeps him reading.

Let’s look at this important ingredient for your memoir: Suspense. Conflict. Tension. Friction. Anxiety.

Here we go! Ah…ah….CHOOOOO!

Tension is “an essential element of any narrative worth telling. A plot without tension is a flat line, a life with no rises, no dips, no anima. Life, by definition, involves tension.… Tension is the medium in which we breathe every day.” Dan Allender

“A nonfiction writer needs to establish conflict right away.… [But] unlike a novelist, you can’t dwell on conflict. Nobody wants a book that defines their problem for them.… I’m looking for a book that will offer me a solution.…” Chip MacGregor  

“Conflict is good: Stories boil down to conflict. We crave that tension and a barrier between the hero and what he/she is seeking. That’s what separates a good story from just an anecdote that may be told at the water cooler.” Slash Coleman

“… Conflict has to occur not just on the larger scale … but also on the smaller theater of the character’s inner life.… Include the outer battle (the physical reaction to the conflict) and the inner battle (the psychological and emotional reaction to events).” K.M. Weiland

“… The cliffhanger is a striking event that happens at the end of an episode, chapter, scene, or season of a story. It leaves doubt in the reader’s mind—usually regarding the fate of the protagonist—and all but forces them to come back to see what comes next.… You want each ‘scene’ to lead your readers deeper and deeper.” Robert Bruce

At FaithWriters blog, Lillian Duncan offers ways to work tension into your stories. Here are a few to enhance memoir:

Introducing unpredictability

Ending chapters with a cliffhanger

Facing a time limit

Foreshadowing (hints of what is coming, or might come, in the future)

Throwing out a red herring (diversion)

Keeping stakes high

(Read more at Lillian’s “Writing Suspense.” Many if not all of her fiction techniques also apply to nonfiction.)

Find the drama in your story and highlight it, but keep a proper balance.

“Stories are about balance. A tale in which there is no conflict is going to be just about as boring as watching condensation dissipate. But a tale that never pauses to let its characters (or its readers) catch their breath is boring in its own way. We have to find ways to adjust the level of the conflict. We have to give our characters a chance to slow down and get their thoughts gathered.…”  K.M.Weiland

Next time we’ll look at more tips. For now, look over your rough drafts and find ways to heighten suspense. Have fun doing it.

Remember: Your stories are important. 
Your stories can bless individuals, families, 
communities, town, nations, even the world. 
They can change lives for eternity. Write your stories!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Do you know your memoir’s theme?

Are you following Spiritual Memoirs 101 on Facebook? 
If not, you’re missing a lot of important, helpful, inspirational stuff! 

By definition, a memoir has a theme. Memoir is not autobiography. Memoir is only a slice of life in which your stories relate to a specific theme.

A memoir could be about your life as a chef in a Scottish castle and how the experience turned your life in an unexpected, but better, direction.

Or you could write about your life as set designer in Hollywood and how that taught you the difference between fair-weather friends and true friends.

Or your life as an abused spouse, how you found the courage to start a new life, and how you became an advocate for other abused people.

You could base your memoir on the same theme as Spiritual Memoirs 101’s theme: Remembering what you’ve seen God do for you and your family, and being sure to tell your children and grandchildren (see Deuteronomy 4:9 and 6:4-9, for example).

Base your memoir on a theme:

—highlight a universal value or struggle
—illustrate a timeless truth or quest
—address issues all humans wrestle with.

Themes: forgiveness, compassion, justice, honesty, integrity, tenacious faith, generosity, courage, respect, overcoming timidity, keeping your word, receiving and giving grace and mercy.

Another idea: You could slice your life in a different direction and write your memoir about a specific time period. My memoir, Grandma’s Letters from Africa, covers my first four years in Africa. Within that time period, the book has a couple of main themes—it deals with universal struggles, timeless truths, and issues many humans wrestle with.

In other words, a good memoir “always connects the reader’s heart with a deeper truth.” (Jeff Goins, “Three Rules to Write World-Changing Memoir.”)

Your memoir’s theme will convey the message you want your readers to take with them. Your theme lays out deep truths you hope they will apply to their lives.

Do you know the theme of the memoir you are writing?

Dr. John Yeoman says, “If you can’t sum it up in a proverb, you don’t have a theme.”

Are you looking for some proverbs? Universal truths you’ve lived? Wisdom quotes you’ve lived? Bible verses you’ve lived?

Here are a few one-liners and quotes I’ve collected recently. Perhaps one or more will work for your memoir’s theme.

"In the moment, it can be hard to see where God is leading us, but looking back we often see his fingerprints." Richard Stearns

“The more one does the more one can do. “ Amelia Earhart

“If things are tough, remember that every flower that ever bloomed had to go through a whole lot of dirt to get there.” Barbara Johnson

“… Reframe setbacks as opportunities….” Sarah Young

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” Helen Keller

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Edmund Burke

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”  Paul in Philippians 4:12

“Selfishness … keeps us in a spiritual playpen.” Elisabeth Elliot

“Don't put limits on what you and God, together, can do.”

“All around you people will be tiptoeing through life, just to arrive at death safely. But dear children, do not tiptoe. Run, hop, skip, or dance, just don't tiptoe!” Shane Claiborne

“If you live gladly to make others glad in God, life will be hard, risks will be high, and your joy will be full.” John Piper

“What if this is a critical moment? What if this very thing, this very decision, is the most important piece of the puzzle comprising my purpose?” Beth Moore

“There’s a time to mourn and a time to dance.”  Ecclesiastes 3:4

“If you were to think of yourself the way I [God] think of you, how different you would be.… If you were to think of yourself as I think of you, how glad, how healthy, how satisfied you would be.… It is My desire that you know My thoughts toward you
that your eyes be opened
and your mind enlightened
that you may know and understand.”  Marie Chapian 

“If a person is ever going to do anything worthwhile, there will be times when he must risk everything by his leap in the dark.” Oswald Chambers

"We trust in all the love of God does; all He gives, and all He does not give; all He says, and all He does not say.... Let us be content with our Lord's will, and tell Him so, and not disappoint Him by wishing for anything He does not give." Amy Carmichael

“Onward up many a frightening creek, though your arms may get sore and your sneakers may leak. Oh! The places you’ll go!” Dr. Seuss

“Adversity is like a strong wind. It tears away from us all but the things that cannot be torn, so that we see ourselves as we really are.” Arthur Golden

"Living a life of faith means never knowing where you are being led. But it does mean loving and knowing the One who is leading." Oswald Chambers

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid... the Lord your God goes with you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not absence of fear.” Mark Twain

“The woe and the waste and the tears of life belong to the interlude and not to the finale.” F.B. Meyer

“Our loving God will turn your mourning into joy, comfort you, and exchange your sorrow for rejoicing.” Jeremiah 31:13

“Do it trembling if you must, but do it!” Emmet Fox

“The opposite of faith is not doubts, it is unbelief.” Mike Trenier

“The Lord has heard your weeping. He has heard your cry for mercy. He accepts your prayer.” Psalm 6:8-9

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, champagne in one hand, strawberries in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, Woo Hoo! What a ride!” (Various versions of this quote are attributed to various authors, including Indian Larry The Ryan Clan)

“Faith is not necessarily the power to make things the way we want them to be; it is the courage to face things as they are.” Ronald Dunn

“Write today's worries in sand. Chisel yesterday's victories in stone.” Max Lucado

“Time is nothing to God. Prayers were offered years ago and God answered the soul with silence. Now He is giving the manifestation of the answer in a revelation that we are scarcely able to comprehend.” Oswald Chambers

“Banish selfishness.”

“You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face... You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Eleanor Roosevelt

"Sometimes your medicine bottle has on it, 'Shake well before using.' That is what God has to do with some of His people. He has to shake them well before they are ever usable." Vance Havner

“...What we resist in life is often our biggest opportunity to learn and grow!” Jody Stevenson

“Oh, the things you can find if you don’t stay behind!”  Dr. Seuss

“When your world falls apart, when your life spins out of control, when your worst fear materializes, when the unspeakable, unthinkable becomes a reality, when your life turns upside down, God is always with you, holding you by your right hand.” Psalm 73:23

Here are three posts to help you pin down your memoir’s theme:

Better Memoir Writing—Two Tips for Conveying Theme Effectively,” by Denis Ledoux

Why Your Story Needs a Theme,” by Amanda Patterson (She offers three steps to finding your theme.)