Thursday, January 28, 2016

“Zipped into your skin”

Write your memoir so that your "reader gets zipped into your skin," in the words of memoir guru Mary Karr.

Think back: Think of a book that made you feel you were in the story, smelling scents she smelled, tasting flavors he tasted, seeing sights she saw, hearing sounds she heard, feeling textures he felt. 

That's the kind of memoir you want to write—one with sensory details (smell, taste, sight, sound, and touch) because they will draw your readers into your story with you.

And you want to draw them in, to "zip them into your skin," because that's the way your message will make its way into the hearts and minds of your readers.

Notice sensory details of sight and sound that Naomi Benaron used in her novel set in Rwanda, Running the Rift

“He stood until the truck became a speck in the red swirl of dust.... [H]e broke into a run down the road, where life paraded on as if nothing had changed. He strained up the hill, sacks of sorghum and potatoes draped over bicycle handlebars or stacked in rickety wooden carts. Children herded goats fastened with bits of string, lugged jerricans filled with water, trotted with rafts of freshly gathered firewood on their heads. Women chatted on the way to and from the market, basins filled with fruits and vegetables balanced like fancy hats.”  

Because I lived in East Africa for a several years, Benaron’s details put a big grin on my face—they transported me back. For those not acquainted with that culture, her details offer an authentic view of life there. Her words make the reader feel he’s in the scene. 

Notice details of sight, sound, and smell in another excerpt from Running the Rift:

“Market goers created a congestion through which the truck barely moved. In the dying afternoon, hawkers called out bargains, packed up unsold tools and clothing, used appliances held together with hope and string. Flies swarmed around carcasses of meat. The aromas of over-ripe fruit and gamy animal flesh made Jean Patrick queasy. A bicycle taxi swerved into their path…. The woman on the back loosed a stream of insults in their direction. The radio droned; the truck engine whined and coughed. Their bodies jostled together from the potholed road….”

Butch Ward offers advice inspired by Jacqui Banaszynski:

"Write cinematically.
Movies pull us through stories
with strong themes,
compelling characters and revelatory details.
Written stories can do the same thing.
Help readers see.
Zoom in tight on details or images
that have the most meaning;
be descriptive and specific.
(Not 'old boots.'
But 'blonde Fryes with scuffed toes
and heels worn down from years of walking the fenceline.')

Caution: Avoid subjecting readers to irrelevant details—details that don’t enhance your main characters or your setting, details that don’t pertain to the point of your story/vignette.

Extraneous details slow down your story. Even worse: They can bore your readers. If your Great-Aunt Louise visited you at a life-changing moment but was not a key player in that pivotal point, readers don’t need to know she was from St. Paul, wore hippie clothes, and smelled of pot. 

Revisit key scenes in your rough draft and ask yourself, "What did the place smell like?" Were you in a stable, or at the perfume counter at Macy's?

Ask yourself, "What noises were in the background?" or "What did her skin feel like?" If you were eating tadpoles in okra sauce, how did that feel on your tongue—what was the texture? the taste? the smell?

Include details
that invite readers into your story
and let them experience it like you did.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Will readers misunderstanding or misinterpret your writing?

Did you know that 80% of our communication is misunderstood?

Here’s how Kendall Haven says it:

“It has long been a guiding principle of writing that,
if there is any possible way
for readers to misread
and misinterpret
what you write,
they will.
The purpose of laborious
and tedious editing
is to make the writing so precise
that it cannot be misread
and misinterpreted.”
(emphasis mine; Kendall Haven, at A Storied Career)

Consider this oh-so-true statement:

“I know that you believe you understand
what you think I said,
but I’m not sure you realize that
what you heard
is not what I meant.”
(attributed to Robert McCloskey,
U.S. State Department spokesman)

So what are you, a memoir writer, to do about that?

After you've written a vignette—or two or three or ten—set your work aside for a few days (or better yet, a few weeks) and think about other things.

Later, print your manuscript. Reading it on a computer screen is different from reading it on paper. I can’t explain why that’s true, but it is: I always catch boo-boos on paper that I miss on the computer screen.  

With printout and pen in hand, read. You’ll be surprised how objective you’ll be after stepping back from your story for a while. Jot notes to yourself about changes to make.

Next, make those revisions, keeping in mind that every good writer revises his or her manuscript a number of times.

Set aside your manuscript again for a few days or weeks and then print it and read it aloud. Your ears can alert you to what your eyes missed. Repeat this step as often as necessary until you’re satisfied.

Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and, for their sake, clarify. Simplify. Spell out.

Ask yourself, “Will they understand my story? Is it clear?”

Have you used lingo (Christianese, for example) or language (foreign or technical, for example) your readers might not understand?

Reword everything that could cause confusion.

Most of all, have fun spiffing up your rough drafts! Revision is an art: polish your story and make it beautiful.

Remember, your stories are important. Stories can change individuals, families, communities, towns, nations—and even the world!

Stories can change lives for eternity. Write your stories!

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What’s the point?

Let me tell you about three men who try my patience.

Two of them, authors (as part of their professions), are famous throughout North America and Britain. You'd recognize their names but I won't identify them because one is a friend and I don't want to embarrass him.

The third is a friend and, because there's no way he'll ever read this blog post, I'll tell you his name: Len.  

What drives me crazy about these three is a little flaw in communication style.

Let's start with Len. Dozes of times my husband and I have sat around a dinner table with Len and his wife. Len has A Point to make but instead of stating it, he lists stats and tells an interesting little story and gives out more stats and tells another story, all the while circling around and around The Point—but he never states The Point.

A legendary cross country coach, Len often talks about a runner's performance but, since I'm only slightly acquainted with cross country, I can't figure out if Len's stats and tales make The Point that the runner is a potential Olympic athlete or a pathetic has-been with no future in cross country. Len talks all around The Point but never states The Point. It's clear to him, but not to every one of his listeners.

The two authors do the same in their writing. They are passionate about their messages but, like Len, they approach The Point from various angles and talk circles around The Point without ever stating The Point. The point is obvious to them, but not to every one of their readers.

Recently I read a memoir by my friend and in numerous places I struggled to make sense of it. I read many passages several times but rarely figured out the guy's Point.

Honestly, I was worried: Was I showing the first signs of dementia?

I persevered to the end, though, and set the book aside, befuddled. And worried about my brain.

I've read several books since then and had no trouble comprehending them.

Now I'm reading my friend's book again. I'm still having trouble figuring out The Points but this time I'm not worried about dementia. Now I know the problem: It's his communication style.

He doesn't realize he's not fully communicatinghe has a blind spot.

We all have blind spots. That's why we need others to read our rough drafts and give us honest critiques.

So here's My Point: Spell out Your Points.

The vignettes—the stories, the accounts—that you write into your memoir are important: They illustrate a principle or lesson you learned, something valuable you want to share with your readers.

It’s fine to list stats and include anecdotes and examine Your Point from various angles but, when the time is right, draw everything together in a specific statement that makes Your Point clear for readers. Jesse Hines says it this way: “… crystallize it in one short, snappy sentence.”

“Many writers have a general idea of what they want to say….
[T]hey start out writing,
touching on their topic from different angles,
and including every bit of information
they think is relevant.
The writing may end up readable
and professional sounding,
but the readers will come away thinking that,
while they understood the gist of the author’s intent,
they can’t precisely say what the take-home point was.
This is usually because the writer
never really knew what it was either.”
Jesse Hines (emphasis mine)

So, while you revise and polish your memoir, focus on clarity: Ask yourself: 
  • Do I know what My Point is?/Points are?
  • Does my vignette/chapter/entire memoir state The Point?
  • Will my readers grasp the take-home point, the takeaway?

When you’ve finished your manuscript, or a vignette or a chapter, ask a fellow writer to critique it. Ask him or her to check for clarity.

Critique partners are valuable allies in this often-mysterious journey called writing. Their blind spots are different from yours, which is a blessing because they help you discover parts of your stories that need changes. Your goal is to make your stories as clear as they can be for the sake of your readers, and a critique partner can help you do that.

Your memoir can serve as:
  • a bridge between you and others,
  • a way for others to benefit from lessons you’ve learned and insights you’ve gained,
  • an instrument to promote forgiveness and understanding,
  • an means of offering hope,
  • a way to comfort others with the comfort God has given you (2 Corinthians 1:4).

"At times our own light goes out and is rekindled 
by a spark from another person. 
Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude 
of those who have lighted the flame within us." 
Albert Schweitzer

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Taking a break can help you make progress on your memoir

Toni tells me she hasn’t worked on her memoir for a couple of years—but she wants to get back to writing it.

I haven’t worked on my second memoir since about Thanksgiving. Life got busy. We took a long trip. Had a lot to do for Christmas and related events. Entertained an out-of-town guest. New Year’s Eve. Those are my excuses.

But like Toni, I want to get back to work.

I suspect most of you can identify with us. How long has it been since you worked on your memoir?

It’s easy to get stuck in a non-writing rut.

Lots of writerly-type folks offer advice for getting out of that rut, especially this time of year, but here’s what works for me and I suggest you give it a try:

Instead of nagging at yourself, instead of attempting to talk yourself—or bribe yourself—into sitting down to write, simply get out your manuscript.

Is it a Word document? If so, sit down in front of your computer and open that document.

Is your manuscript hand-written and tucked into a folder in a filing cabinet drawer?

Wherever it is, get it out.

You might not realize it yet but taking a break from writing might be the best thing that could happen to your memoir.

Here’s what I mean: Whether you’ve written several vignettes, a few chapters, or an entire rough draft, set it aside. That’s right—leave it alone for a while. Do something else, because….

Well, here’s how Zadie Smith says it:

“…if money is not a desperate priority,
if you do not need to sell it at once
or be published that very second—
put it in a drawer.
For as long as you can manage.
A year or more is ideal—
but even three months will do.
Step away….
The secret to editing your work is simple:
you need to become its reader instead of its writer.”
Zadie Smith (emphasis mine)

That’s it! You need to look at your manuscript as if you were reading it for the first time.

Think about it:
You know what you are attempting to communicate
but if you’re too close to your story,
you don’t recognize the gaps
you’ve inadvertently left.

In your mind,
you know all the subtle things
and the back story
and where the story is going—
so, in your brain, all the info is there.

The problem is this:
too many of those details are still only in your mind
and not on the paper or computer screen
in black and white.

If you’re too close to your manuscript,
it’s easy to overlook holes and cracks
those things that will trip up readers and interrupt your story.

If you are too close to your manuscript,
you can’t read it as if you’re reading it for the first time.

This means that if you’ve set aside your manuscript for a while, you now have an opportunity to take a fresh look and fix things that need fixing.

Here’s how you get started: Read it. Better yet, read it aloud.

Check for clarity—does it make sense?

Your goal is to eliminate confusion, to enhance your readers’ understanding.

Is your story clear and concise?

Have you used easy-to-understand words? Don’t make readers get out a dictionary—they won’t do it!

How can you simplify your words and sentences and paragraphs?

Do you need to rearrange the order of
  • words in a sentence?
  • sentences in a paragraph?
  • paragraphs in a vignette?

What do you need to add or subtract to make your story understandable for your readers?

Make it easy for your readers to keep reading.

Working on clarity might not seem like writing your memoir, but you will have accomplished valuable, necessary work. You will have made significant progress.

More on clarity next Thursday but until then:

What you’re doing is not punishment!

It’s polishing something beautiful.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: Your story, a blessing to others

Here's your 15 seconds of inspiration,
your Tuesday Tidbit:

"...[E]veryone has a particular story
they long to write;
...a 'snapshot' in time
that resonates 
with the larger life journey...
a story that might help others."