Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: Powerful writing

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

“… Great books are not simply written.

They’re rewritten.

They’re edited.

And edited again.”

“…A proper edit…carves out truth,

truth that heals readers’ misconceptions—

about the world, themselves, God and others.”

Thursday, June 23, 2016

No one wants to stop reading to look up a word in a dictionary

“What does parsimonious mean?” my highly-educated husband asked. He was reading Eisenhower In War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith.

Parsimonious. I’d known of the word most of my life. It always reminded me of parsnips. But did I know what it meant?

Um… No, I didn’t. Neither did Dave, and we felt embarrassed.

I felt so embarrassed that I stood up, walked to my desk, and opened my thesaurus. Here’s what I found:

not enough

Dave was still puzzled so I asked him to read me the sentence with parsimonious in it.

“Eisenhower…was parsimonious with the lives of the troops entrusted to his command….”

Eisenhower was not enough with the lives of the troops?
Eisenhower was retentive with the lives of his troops?
Eisenhower was mean with the lives of his troops?
Eisenhower was selfish with the lives of his troops?
Eisenhower was self-restrained with the lives of his troops?

That last meaning, self-restrained, had potential, so I checked that out in the thesaurus: self-controlled, self-disciplined, restrained. Self-restraint also has to do with being frugal, temperate, not excessive, moderate, measured, limited.

So Dave and I concluded Ike valued his troops’ lives and was frugal when it came to endangering them. He practiced self-restraint when it came to sending troops into harm’s way: He recognized the danger he could put them in but exercised restraint so no one would suffer or die unnecessarily.  

OK, that’s enough about parsimonious. My point is this: When you write your memoir, use words your readers will understand.

No one appreciates having to stand up, walk over to the bookshelf, take down the dictionary or thesaurus, and look up a word.

In fact, I suspect most readers simply won’t do it.

Your goal is to make it easy for everyone to read your memoir.

Many years ago, journalism instructors taught us to write for an eighth grade audience. That’s not a typo. Eighth graders!

Recently I ran across that same advice.*

And it’s good advice. It yields benefits:

“We shouldn’t discount simple writing,
but instead embrace it.
We should aim to reduce complexity in our writing
as much as possible.
We won’t lose credibility in doing so.
Our readers will comprehend and retain
our ideas more reliably.
And we’ll have a higher likelihood
of reaching more people.”
Shane Snow,

You can still use interesting, expressive, musical, graphic, textured, dazzling words—words that zing—as long as they’re familiar to your readers, effective words like:

a blowhard

Dear William Zinsser wrote about the importance of choosing words: “Banality is the enemy of good writing. The challenge is to not write like everybody else.” Writers should avoid a word that’s merely serviceableuseful, practical—or dull, he said, and instead strive for freshness.

I jotted down of a few simple yet vivid words penned by Zinsser in his Writing About Your Life:

a sea of codgers, codging the time away
a courtly man
a lofty wicker chair
he listened…with exquisite courtesy
a cultivated man
a rangy, easygoing man
a compact man
he had a scholar’s face: intelligent and quizzical

A word of caution: Use your dictionary and thesaurus wisely. Janice Hardy blogged about “an episode of Friends where the dumb-yet-lovable Joey wrote a letter of recommendation. To sound smart, he used the thesaurus and replaced all his ‘dumb’ words with ‘smart ones.’”  Janice continued, “‘They’re warm, nice people with big hearts’ became ‘They’re humid, pre-possessing homosapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.’”

So go ahead and use words with sparkle and pizzazz—just choose words that most people understand.  

*Additional resources:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: An unfinished manuscript and a writer sitting down to write

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

But persevere!
Stick with it!
Keep writing!


"An unfinished manuscript
cannot change lives.
Even a finished one
cannot minister
in a drawer
filing cabinet."
Lee Roddy, quoted in Marlene Bagnull's Write His Answer

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Your memoir’s key people: Include only relevant details

For the past two Thursdays, we’ve looked at ways to polish your memoir and make it as user-friendly as possible:  After all, you want people to read it—but you want more than that: You want them to feel immersed in it. You want readers to experience what you experienced.

Today we’ll focus on creating realistic characters. (You don’t need to flesh out every person in your memoir, but readers want to get acquainted with your main characters.)

What are your character’s most significant features and actions and habits and mannerisms? Include sensory detailsdetails pertaining to the five senses: seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.

In The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin’s main character, Talmadge, looks like this—this is what she wants the reader to see:

          “His face was as pitted as the moon…. His ears were elephantine, a feature most commented on when he was younger, when the ears stuck out from his head; but now they had darkened like the rest of his sun-exposed flesh and lay against his skull…and were tough, the flesh granular like the rind of some fruit. He was clean-shaven, large-pored; his skin was oily. In some lights his flesh was gray; others, tallow; others, red. His lips were the same color as his face…. His nose was large, bulbous. His eyes were cornflower blue…. and his lips were as pure and sculpted as a cherub’s….
          “His arms were sun-darkened and flecked with old scars. He combed his hair over his head, a dark, sparse wing kept in place with pine-scented pomade.”

Develop a multi-dimensional person: go beyond a physical, sensory description. What was endearing about her? Annoying about him? Comical, scary, heroic? What did she obsess over? And was that a good or bad obsession? What did other people say or think about that person?

Frederick Buechner writes of New Testament character Paul:

          “Paul’s mads were madder and his blues bluer, his pride prouder and his humbleness humbler, his strengths stronger and his weaknesses weaker than almost anybody else’s you’d be apt to think of…. [H]is contemporaries accused him of being insincere, crooked, yellow, physically repulsive, unclean, bumbling, and off his rocker.” (from Wishful Thinking and later from Beyond Words)

Peel back layers:

Readers need to know what was happening between the lines.
What was happening beneath and beyond the sensory details?
What was going on inside?
What were that person’s thoughts?

What was it about the person’s history, 
or values 
that impacted your life?

For example, Frederick Buechner writes,

          “Like her father, my grandmother had little patience with weakness, softness, sickness. Even gentleness made her uncomfortable, I think—the tender-hearted people who from fear of giving pain, or just from fear of her, hung back from speaking their minds the way she spoke hers.” (The Sacred Journey)

Your goal is to accurately portray the most important people in your stories without overdoing it.  Know what information to include and what to leave out: Include relevant details; leave out irrelevant ones. If your character was an avid fisherman and a Kansas City Royals fan but those details have no relevance to your story, you can probably leave out that information.

          “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. In the best of cases—when craft rises to art—the author conjures a character that seems fully present for the reader….”

Revise and polish your memoir in those places where
your main characters need to come to life.
Develop people your readers can visualize, but go beyond that:
create living, breathing, vibrant,
memorable, significant characters.

Choose precise words to briefly but adequately flesh out
the most important aspects of key people,
people who are believable, knowable, and well-rounded.

If you can achieve that,
your readers will feel acquainted and connected
with your memoir’s most important characters.

If you missed the last two Thursday posts, click on:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The importance of “place” in your memoir

In your memoir, you’ll introduce readers to places where you experienced significant events. Since your readers weren’t there—and since reading your memoir will likely be the first time they’ll experience those places—develop them well.

Why? Because readers need to identify with you, they want to live your experience with you. 

“Whether you write fiction or non-fiction (especially memoirs), you’ve got to completely engage your readers,” writes Sheila Bender. “Create vivid scenes using images that appeal to all the senses….” 

So then, be deliberate in describing the place, the setting, of major events in your memoir: Include sensory detailsdetails pertaining to the five senses: seeing, touching, tasting, smelling, and hearing.

Step back in time, look around, and describe the place as if you were seeing it for the first time.

If your scene is indoors, take your readers with you into a building or a room. What did you see, feel, taste, smell, and hear? Was it dusty or polished, cluttered or tidy, warm or cold, old or new, welcoming or unfriendly?

If your scene takes place outdoors, what did you see, feel, taste, smell, and hear? Include weather, seasons, time of day, the landscape and geography—ocean, desert, rain forest, island, mountain. Describe plants, animals, and maybe even the place’s culture, traditions, folklore, races, languages, and mood or atmosphere.  

Below you’ll find examples of well-developed places. (The first two are from works of fiction, but the art and craft of describing a place is the same whether fiction or nonfiction; nonfiction—memoir, in our case—is always true.)

Here’s an excerpt from Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist:

 “They always went the same way, south along the Wenatchee River until its confluence with the Columbia. The Wenatchee River was narrow and familiar, clattering and riffling, surrounded by evergreens and then, later, rocky gravel banks, but the Columbia was different. It was kingly. Serious, roiling, wide. It looked as if it was not flowing very quickly, but Talmadge told Angelene that it was. No matter how many times she saw the Columbia, she was always struck by it. She sometimes dreamed about it, about walking along it and staring at its strange opaque quality, or trying to cross it by herself….” 

This is an excerpt from Marilynne Robinson’s Lila:

            “When they were children they used to be glad when they stayed in a workers’ camp, shabby as they all were, little rows of cabins with battered tables and chairs and moldy cots inside, and maybe some dishes and spoons. They were dank and they smelled of mice…. Somebody sometime had nailed a horseshoe above the door of a cabin they had for a week, and they felt this must be important….
            “They were given crates of fruit that was too ripe or bruised, and the children ate it till they were…sick of the souring smell of it and the shiny little black bugs that began to cover it, and then they would start throwing it at each other and get themselves covered with rotten pear and apricot. Flies everywhere. They’d be in trouble for getting their clothes dirtier than they were before. Doane hated those camps. He’d say, ‘Folks sposed to live like that?’…”

Here is an excerpt from my second memoir, still in rough draft:

            Our mission center “was into the dry season and the sky was a clear, clean blue with hardly a wisp of a cloud. Daytime temperatures soared to over a hundred degrees in the shade—cruel, withering.
            “The green scent of rainy season had given way to the spicy fragrance of sun-dried grasses. As far as the eye could see, immense open stretches of deep emerald had disappeared, leaving the llanos stiff and bleached and simmering under unrelenting equatorial sun. Most lush greens had turned a parched blonde. Leaves had gone brown and fallen. Even my favorite tree dropped its leaves—the young one with delicate fern-like leaves.
            “Muddy paths and one-lane tracks turned rock-hard and, with use, changed to dust. Yards and airstrips and open fields turned to dust, too. From sun up to sundown, a stiff wind blew across the llanos from central South America, a gift from God because it offered a little relief. On the other hand, dust blew through jalousied widows and into homes and offices and we used rocks and paper weights and other heavy objects to keep papers from blowing away. Dust settled on our counters and furniture and in cracks and crannies and on our necks and in our armpits and up our noses.” (Linda K. Thomas, Oh God Don't Make Me Go Don't Make Me Go)

To help you recall details about the culture and geography of your place, look up sites on the internet like “You might be from Seattle if….”

For example, if you’re from Seattle you:
  • know what Lutefiske is
  • know lots of people who work for Microsoft and Boeing
  • know more people who own boats than air conditioners
  • know how to pronounce Sequim, Puyallup, Issaquah, and Dosewallips
  • know how to pronounce geoduck, know what it is, and how to eat it.

And Jeff Foxworthy says that if you’re from Seattle, “You can point to two volcanoes, even if you cannot see through the cloud cover,” and “You notice that ‘the mountain is out’ when it’s a pretty day and you can actually see it.” (And I would add:  You know which mountain is “the” mountain.)

Recreate your memoir’s places for your readers. Think about the five senses and ask yourself, for example, what were the sounds of those places? Whispering, yelling, praying, arguing? Construction noises? Traffic noises? Or only wind in the trees? (If so, what kinds of trees were they? Douglas fir? Aspen? Palm?)

Spend time recollecting the other senses pertaining to your special places: the sights, the textures, tastes, and smells.

Reconstruct your key scenes’ places 
and invite readers to experience them in the way you did.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Tuesday Tidbit: Put yourself in your readers’ shoes

Here’s this week’s Tuesday Tidbit,
your 15 seconds of inspiration:

“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.”
(Kendall Haven; emphasis mine)

That means you, the writer, must put yourself in your readers’ shoes and, for their sake, clarify.

Choose words carefully.

Give specific details.

Be accurate. Unambiguous.


Simplify. Simplify. Simplify.

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

Refine your story. Enhance it. Polish it. Make it shine.

If you missed last Thursday’s post, click on “When you say something, make sure you have said it.”

Thursday, June 2, 2016

“When you say something, make sure you have said it”

After you’ve written a chapter or vignette for your memoir, set it aside for at least a couple of weeks. Don’t think about it for a while. 

Distance and time are your friends—they do wonders for objectivity—because the fresher the story is in your memory, the harder it will be to catch things you need to change.

Later, print out that chapter/vignette. Reading on paper is different from reading on a computer screen. I haven’t yet figured out why, but it’s true. I always notice glitches and hiccups on a written page that I miss on a computer screen.

Read your story aloud. Read it as if you were a stranger. You’ll be surprised at the changes you’ll want to make—changes that will improve your story for your readers.

When you say something,
make sure you have said it,”
says E.B. White.
The chances of your having said it are only fair.”

He’s right. Rarely do we write a clear message the first time, or even the second or third times.

I’ve heard that 80 percent of what we communicate is misunderstood.

In other words, we communicate accurately only 20 percent of the time.

That’s scary.

Read over your stories to be sure they’re clear. Be sure you’ve said what you meant to say.

Listen to this advice from a real pro, a long-time mentor of mine:

You write to discover what you want to say.
You rewrite to discover what you have said
and then rewrite to make it clear to other people.”
Donald Murray

And remember:

Revision is not punishment,” says Murray in The Craft of Revision.

“Writing evolves from a sequence of drafts,” he says. “Scientists…experiment…. Actors and musicians rehearse. Retailers test markets, politicians take polls, manufacturers try pilot runs. They all revise, and so do writers. Writing is rewriting.”

Instead of thinking of revision as punishment, think of it as an art—it’s polishing your manuscript and making it sparkle.

They can change individuals, families, 
communities, towns, nations—even the world!

Write your stories!