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.

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