Thursday, January 31, 2019

God wants to use your memoir so write it well

Reading time: 3 minutes, 34 seconds

God has given you a story—a unique story only you can tell. He has led you up to mountaintop experiences and down into deep valleys, and He has brought you to this day.

And He wants you to tell others what He has done and what you have learned.

He wants to use your story like He has used so many others—accounts from the Bible and from current-day people—to encourage, instruct, heal, comfortchallenge, inspire—even to amuse.

Did you get that?
He wants to use your memoir.
He has plans for your memoir.

That means you need to pen a story that others will read. And that’s why we’ve concentrated recently on writing an outstanding beginning for your memoir. You need to hook readers and convince them to read your God-and-you story.

Opening paragraphs and pages will likely be the hardest part of writing, but it’s doable. It can even be fun!

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve studied a variety of openings (click on links below). Here are more options:

The Zinger (or Startling) Lead surprises readers—maybe even gives them a jolt—creates curiosity, and builds suspense.

Here’s an example:

“I was five years old the first time I ever set foot in prison. . . . It smelled like urine and whiskey vomit. . . . The corridors were dark and gloomy, and the slightest sound echoed ominously in the hall. We stopped in front of a cell where men stared at the wall in front of them. Some were crumpled on the floor where they had passed out. . . .” (Jimmy Santiago Baca, A Place to Stand)

That’s just a few sentences, but you’d want to continue fashioning a number of paragraphs, perhaps even an entire chapter, to give momentum to your opening.

Here’s another example:

“I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.
            Mom stood fifteen feet away. She had tied rags around her shoulders to keep out the spring chill and was picking through the trash. . . . Mom’s gestures were all familiar—the way she tilted her head and thrust out her lower lip when studying items of potential value that she’d hoisted out of the Dumpster, the way her eyes widened with childish glee when she found something she liked. . . . ” (Jeannette Walls, The Glass Castle)

Use The Question Lead to make your reader think about how he would answer. Avoid a question that can be answered with a simple “Yes” or “No.” Ask a thought-provoking question that will draw him in and motivate him to keep reading.

For example: “If you found yourself in my shoes, what would you do? I’d just discovered my boss had been secretly taping his conversations with me. And even though I kept my private life private—super private, in fact—he knew I’d gone to a birthday party the night before. Was he stalking me? If so, why? What did he know that I didn’t know? I asked myself, Should I go to the police? Should I hire an attorney? And then I asked the question that really gave me the willies: Am I in danger?”

This, too, is brief so you’d want to write a lot more, maybe a whole chapter, to craft an effective opening.

Then there’s The “You” Message. Address the reader, using the word “you” to help him identify with the person(s) in your story.

For example: “You recognize shapes as written words and can spell them out letter by letter. You write down lists so you won’t forget. You read a book for leisure. You enjoy crossword puzzles. You get news from the Internet or a daily paper. And as you study God’s Word, He speaks to you. For millions of people [however], these skills do not exist. . . .” (from “Eyes to See, Ears to Hear,” Rev 7, Fall 2006)

How's the beginning of your memoir? Even if you’ve worked on it before, like Nathan Bransford said, “You probably need to take another look at your opening.”

Why? Because most people perfect and polish their opening last. It’s generally the hardest part to compose and is the most important part—because it can make or break your entire story. And you really don’t want your memoir to just gather dust on your readers’ bookshelves.

So here’s your assignment:

Set aside time to study openings by looking through books at the library or a bookstore. Study magazine and newspaper articles.

Not all of those beginnings will be effective. Ask yourself what works and what doesn’t, and why. (Read Tuesday’s post, I gave the famous author two days to convince me to read her book, but. . . . about an opening that just didn’t grab me.)

Then, with what you learn, craft your memoir’s opening. Experiment.

Get feedback from a writers’ group or online critique community.

You can do this! Remember why you must do this!

God has given you a story—a unique story only you can tell. He has led you up to mountaintop experiences and down into deep valleys, and He has brought you to this day.

And He wants you to tell others what He has done and what you have learned.

He wants to use your story like He has used so many other stories—stories from the Bible and from current-day people—to encourage, instruct, heal, comfort, challenge, inspire—even to amuse.

Did you get that?
He wants to use your memoir.
He has plans for your memoir.

Make those plans happen!

Related posts:
If you don’t get this right, you’ll lose readers (the Quote Lead and the Scene-setting Lead)
Before people buy your memoir, they’ll check out its opening (the Action Lead, Anecdote Lead, and Statistics Lead)

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

I gave the famous author two days to convince me to read her book, but. . . .

Reading time: 1 minute, 47 seconds

I’m not making this up. And the timing is perfect, considering our current series here at SM 101.

The other day I brought a memoir home from the library because a prominent instructor praised it highly, calling it “a gorgeous book.”

Other learned people praised it, too. Besides, the author is a Pulitzer-prize winner. Her memoir was sure to be a winner. I just had to bring it home.

I’m sure glad I had checked out another book at the same time because two days later, I set the memoir aside.

Two days I gave the famous author. Two days to entice me to read her book. But the story only grew increasingly boring.

I just couldn’t read it any longer. I closed it and picked up the other book—which is much better. Much better.

Here’s the point we’ve been making for the past couple of weeks:

You, the writer, need to hook readers from the outset.

Your story’s opening should captivate the reader—
beguile, intrigue, attract, appeal to him—
pull him in and make him want to keep reading.

And, thanks to Denise Mast Broadwater, one of our SM 101 tribe, here’s a resource to help you do just that.  Denise posted this on Facebook:

Hooked, by Les Edgerton, is a book on first pages. I’m hearing this more and more: [the opening] must drag you in.” She adds, “I’m almost finished reading it and it’s been a big help.” 

I haven’t read Hooked, but I see that Edgerton addresses writers of fiction. No doubt his material is relevant for writers of memoir, too. Look into it!

If you missed recent posts about how to craft your memoir’s beginning, click on the links below.

P.S. In re-reading that memoir’s reviews, it appears that those who loved it were drawn in because they could relate to the author’s heartbreaking experience. I, on the other hand, couldn’t relate, though I was willing to be convinced to keep reading—but the author’s hook (opening, beginning) just didn’t work.

“…Most people are not going to care about your story—unless—they can relate to or are interested in what you have to talk about,” she says.

Readers are drawn to stories that speak to a specific issue or problem they face.

“They want to find inspiration and courage from someone who has already walked and survived the path they find themselves on.”

Sarah captures an important insight for those of us who write—as well as those of us who read: Not every memoir will interest every reader.

Come back Thursday!
You’ll learn about additional types of openings:
  • Startling Assertion
  • Question
  • A “You” Message

Related posts:

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Before people buy your memoir, they’ll check out its opening

Reading time: 2 minutes, 10 seconds

Anne R. Allen points out that when potential buyers check into a book, “. . . All readers want to see that a book looks professional and polished.

“They don’t want to invest time in a book—even if it’s free—unless they feel they’re in competent hands.”

And your competence, or lack of it, will be apparent from the first paragraph and first page so you need to work hard to make them shine.

Craft an opening that catches potential readers’ attention, stirs their emotions, and makes them curious to know more—in other words, an opening that inspires them to plunk down money for your memoir and read it.  

Keep this in mind: You’re not on your own in fashioning your memoir’s opening:   

  • You can get outstanding help from a quality critique group, either in person or online. Such groups are invaluable! Let your critique partners experiment with you on crafting a powerful lead (opening, beginning).
  • We here at SM 101 are also here to help.

We’ve already covered the following types of leads—The Quote Lead and
The Scene-setting Lead. (If you missed recent blog posts, click on links below.)

So today let’s continue with more options for creating a powerful start to your memoir:

The Action (or Narrative) Lead: “The dusty earth vibrated and bushes crashed, snapping the silence of the tawny African plain. . . . We caught a blurred glimpse of some creature approaching us, carving a path through the dense thorn scrub brush. Two tick-eating birds flapped frantically off a massive iron-grey back as their resting place lunged out from under them. Now we saw clearly what was heading our way. It was a rhinoceros, one of Africa’s most unpredictable animals.” (Dr. Jon Arensen, Rhino!)

(Jon and I worked together in Africa. Besides being a great storyteller and author, Jon is an anthropologist, linguist, Bible translator, and university professor. Look into Jon’s other books on Amazon.)

The Anecdote Lead: Use a short story to illustrate or personalize your story’s broader topic or main point.

For example, this anecdote kicks off a story about a broad topic, the proliferation of gun violence across America:

“Even before the fireworks launched from the French Quarter’s Jackson Square, 2006 went out with a bang in New Orleans—a handful of them, actually. At 7 p.m. on December 31, several of those bangs felled a 42-year-old man, who was found inside his FEMA trailer with multiple gunshot wounds to the back of his head. At 8:45 p.m., another man was shot several times and left dead on the sidewalk. At 10:12 p.m., a third was killed inside his home.” (The New Math on Crime, by Will Sullivan, U.S. News and World Report, January 15, 2007).

A Statistics Lead, if brief, can effectively catch readers’ attention and persuade them to keep reading.

For example, “Around the world, 925 million people—more than the populations of North America and South America combined—go hungry on a daily basis,” and Guatemala “has the highest percentage of chronically malnourished children in Latin America (the fourth highest in the world). In some areas, chronic malnutrition causes 90 percent of children to suffer.” (World Vision)

Lead-writing can be hard work, even for pros. Like Bill Roorbach said,

“ . . . Most first lines weren’t first till after much revision. . . .”

That means: Give yourself permission to take weeks, or months, or even years to settle on your memoir’s opening. 

An effective beginning can motivate a person to buy your book,
but a weak one could persuade him to close your memoir 
and walk away.

Next week: More ways to begin your memoir!

Related posts:

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Tuesday Tidbit: Why should you wait to write your memoir’s opening?

Reading time: 50 seconds

Consider waiting to write your memoir’s opening until after you’ve completed your rough draft. Most people do.


Because crafting the lead (the hook, the opening, the beginning) can be challenging—or even exasperating—so, many writers pin it down after they’ve composed most of their piece.

Two reasons to wait:

First: Sometimes within the writing of a story, it evolves into a different story. You didn’t set out to tell that story, but it’s good, it’s important, it’s a keeper.

In that case, if you had created an opening at the outset, you’d have wasted your time. That’s because a different story needs a different hook.

Second: Often an idea for the lead comes from within already-written paragraphs and chapters. Be alert—watch for it! When you find it, go to work crafting your beginning.

In the past couple of weeks, we’ve covered two types of leads:
(Click on those links if you missed those posts.)

But there are more!

Be sure to come back Thursday and I’ll tell you about additional types of leads—
  • The Action Lead,
  • The Anecdote Lead,
  • and The Statistics Lead.

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Related posts:

Thursday, January 17, 2019

If you don’t get this right, you’ll lose readers.

Reading time: 2 minutes, 32 seconds

After dismantling your scaffolding, it’s time to design a catchy opening for your memoir.

(You did remove your scaffolding, didn’t you? If not, you should! “Don’t think the reader will be patient with you until you can get around to the actual story,” writes Matilda Butler. If you need to brush up on what scaffolding is, click on Whether you’re building a castle or a memoir, the scaffolding must come down.)

Today we’re talking about leads, a term I use because of my journalism background. Sometimes the lead is called a narrative hook, or simply a hook.

The lead is the first thing people read. It catches their attention. You hook readers by making them curious and drawing them in. A well-crafted beginning motivates people to (1) buy your book and (2) read it all the way to the end.

A captivating lead is a crucial component in newspaper and magazine articles.

It is a must for blog posts, sermons, talks, and devotionals.

A top-notch lead is vital for a memoir (and for each chapter as well).

Think for a minute about your memoir. When people consider buying it, they’ll check out your opening.

Does that make you a little nervous?

If so, get used to it: Readers will compare your beginning to those of other writers.

After all, when you browse the shelves looking for a good book, before you purchase it, you open it and read the beginning, right?

Before you order a book from Amazon, you click on the “Look Inside” feature to see how it begins, right?

And if the opening doesn’t grab you, you don’t buy it, right?

It makes sense, then, that when people consider spending money on your memoir, they’ll check out how it starts. That’s why you need to craft a humdinger of a beginning.

So, let’s look at openings. But first, a word of clarification: Writing a memoir is not the same as writing a paper in Composition 101 in college.

Do you remember Comp 101?

If not, here’s a reminder of what your professor drilled into you:

Paragraph One is your introduction—a few sentences familiarizing readers with your topic. Here’s an example of a topic: How you decided to work as a nanny in Scotland.

In English Comp format, you follow the intro with the main body: Paragraphs Two, Three, and Four, each explaining one step in your decision-making process.

Then in Paragraph Five, you write your ending, your conclusion—you more or less rephrase your introduction.

But in writing your memoir, do away with the English Comp 101 format. Instead, begin by intriguing readers with your lead, your hook.

Today we’ll look at two types of leads—and in coming days we’ll study even more kinds—so be sure to come back!

The Quote Lead: Use a quote, poem, or proverb to make people curious about your story.

For example, you might use this Martin Luther King, Jr., quote: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

Here’s another example of a quote lead, this one by Elisabeth Elliot: “When you’re in a dark place, you sometimes tend to think you’ve been buried. Perhaps you’ve been planted. Bloom.”

The Scene-setting Lead: Describe your story’s setting so your reader feels she’s standing beside you, hearing, seeing, tasting, feeling, and/or smelling the place or event.

For example: “Suited up in a knee-length tuxedo jacket, 15-year-old Nathan Heintz bowed slightly to the seated girl, held out a corsage and asked, ‘May I have the next dance?’ With a fur stole flung across her shoulders and legs daintily crossed at the ankles, Lindsey Ingalls, 16, smiled and nodded her acceptance. It was enough to make Miss Manners blush with pride.

“With a rustle of gowns, tugging of gloves and twitters of laughter, dozens of teens and pre-teens gathered Thursday night for a winter ball. . . .” (by Hope Brumbach in The Spokesman-Review, January 13, 2007)

Your job is to
write a strong first sentence.
And powerful first paragraphs.
And a brawny first chapter.

Otherwise, you’ll lose readers.

Come back Thursday!
I’ll share with you more types of leads
to use in your memoir!

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Tuesday Tidbit: Your memoir’s opening—like a Baked Alaska?

Reading time: 16 seconds

Has it ever occurred to you that your memoir’s opening could resemble a Baked Alaska?

Come back Thursday for specific tips
on writing an attention-grabbing opening.

If you missed the last two blog posts, click on links below:

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.
See you Thursday!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Does your opening make your memoir a must-read?

Reading time: 1 minute, 43 seconds

Your memoir’s opening is the most important part to write well.

You must craft every aspect well, but your beginning could make or break your entire book—so create curiosity, draw readers in, and keep them reading.

A written piece’s opening will probably be the hardest to create, whether you’re composing a book, vignette, newspaper or magazine article, blog post, inspirational talk, or sermon.

Brian Clark drives home that point:

“Master copywriter Gene Schwartz often spent an entire week on the first 50 words. . . . Those 50 words are the most important part of any persuasive writing, and writing them takes time. Even for the masters.”

Read that again: “ . . . writing them takes time. Even for the masters.”

How are you doing on crafting your memoir’s beginning?

Here are a few tips:

Remove your scaffolding. (Don’t miss that link!) Your first few paragraphs must be the correct ones.

Be sure your beginning doesn’t give away the ending. This might seem like a no-brainer, but too many people goof on that.

Prolific author and New York Times bestselling author Cecil Murphey says, “I once read more than one hundred of the entries for Christmas Miracles, a compilation book. The major flaw in at least a third of them was that they told us the ending before they told us the story.” Cecil gave this example: “The worst Christmas of my life became the best Christmas ever.”

Instead of giving away the ending, intrigue your readers. Entice them to keep reading so they’ll discover how your memoir ends.

When I teach memoir classes, I encourage people to do what I did when I was a journalism student (and still do today): Study openings written by pros.

Be an eager student: Go to the library, browse around a book store, look through your own stack of books, and look inside memoirs on Amazon—but only those written by pros. Study how they do it.

Scrutinize the start of everything you come across—newspaper articles, magazine articles, literary journals, fiction—anything written by pros, and study how they do it.

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with professionally composed openings, look at how non-pros write them, whether memoirs, fiction, articles, or blog posts. (Most blogs I follow have weak beginnings, sad to say.)

By studying beginnings penned by both pros and beginners, you’ll recognize what works and what doesn’t. And you’ll become more skilled at creating your own memoir’s opening.

Remember: Plan to take plenty of time 
to create just the right beginning.

The first part of your memoir can make or break the whole book.

An effective start can motivate a person to keep reading,
but a weak one could persuade him to close your memoir and walk away.

Put in the hard work needed to make your opening zing.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Tuesday Tidbit: Does your memoir’s beginning pass the test?

Reading time: 20 seconds

After you’ve drafted your memoir’s beginning, set it aside for a couple of weeks—or longer, if you can.

Then look at it again. Ask yourself: 
  • Will it grab my readers?
  • Will it surprise them? Stir up curiosity?
  • Make them laugh? Or make them cry?
  • Will it intrigue them? Charm them?
  • Most important: Will it motivate them to keep reading?

If not, rewrite your beginning.

And please don’t feel bad about that.

Everyone revises their beginnings.

Stay tuned. 
In a few days, we'll take an in-depth look
at crafting good beginnings.

There you have it, your Tuesday Tidbit.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

“The legacy you leave hinges on your decision to start.”

Reading time: 1 minute 30 seconds

Have you started writing your memoir yet?

No? Are you still waiting for just the right motivation?  

Since, traditionally, January is a time to start new projects, here are thoughts to spur you on:

“Planning to write is not writing,” said E.L. Doctorow. “Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re doing—none of that is writing. Writing is writing.

Writing is like driving at night in the fog,” he said. “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

I love that, don’t you? “You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

You can do this!

Don’t underestimate the value of your stories.

Think back: When did a sentence or chapter or book turn your life around?

I still cling to a single sentence I read almost half a century ago. It altered my perspective and the way I’ve lived all these years. How I thank God for inspiring that woman to write her book!

And I can never thank God enough for leading a man to write his book—because one chapter rescued me and healed me and revolutionized my relationship with God.

Your book could do that for readers, too.

Believe it!

You might never meet that special reader who needs your story—I’ve not met the authors of those two books—but God used and continues to use their words. The same can be true for your memoir.

Jeff Goins adds more incentive to those who haven’t begun writing:

“I hate to tell you this, but there are no ‘Best Intentions’ awards at the end of your life. It’s now or never. . . . Not in a month. Right now.

“If it’s worth the effort, you shouldn’t wait.

“If it’s not, then simply tell the truth: I don’t want that badly enough. . . .

Starting is hard,” Jeff says. “It requires courage and perseverance and all kinds of gumption. That’s why most people just talk about it, but never do it. But starting is necessary. It’s crucial to making your mark and leaving a legacy.

No matter how long it takes, write your memoir!

And while you write,
pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

If you missed the New Year’s Day post,

May you find God’s encouragement and enabling
as you write!

If you’re just beginning to compose your memoir, 
leave a comment below 
We want to cheer you on!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

A writer’s prayer for YOU

Lord, thanks for this new year and the fresh opportunities you offer us to write our memoirs.

Remind us that you’ve given each of us life and therefore you’ve given each of us a story—a story to share with others.

Help us believe that writing our stories is not a hobby—it’s a ministry! You’ve told us to always remember what we’ve seen You do and to tell our children and grandchildren (Deuteronomy 4:9). And Jesus said, “Go back to your family and tell them all that God has done for you” (Luke 8:39).

Convince us that we should not look down on small beginnings—and that You, O God, delight to see our work begin (Zechariah 4:10). Lord, give us courage to begin.

Ignite a fire in our hearts to work as disciplined, intentional writers, committed to finishing our memoirs.

Take away our fears, Lord, and help us compose our stories with confidence, knowing you will use our efforts to point readers to You and Your love and Your goodness.

Motivate us to make time to reflect—to think back and ponder and examine—and to search for Your holy fingerprints, footprints, and heartprints. Enlighten us so we connect the dots and notice connections we overlooked in the past.

Enable us to see Your big picture, to recognize what you were doing to bring about Your best for us—often not the easiest, but the best.

You have entrusted our stories to us. You want us to tell others so they can see how You fought our battles alongside us, You brought healing and hopenot because of who we are, but because of who You are! Not because we are so great, but because You, God, are so great.

You have called us to a sacred task so inspire us, dear Lord. Place in us a desire to learn to write well, with clarity and grace, and to persevere through the rewriting and polishing and editing and publishing and marketing. Bring good people alongside us to accomplish all that.

Help us recognize that while we’ll be full of joy when we publish our memoirs, we can and must find joy in the process of writing, of retelling our “God-and-Me” stories. Give us the ability to embrace fulfillment and purpose and satisfaction in doing what You’ve called us to do.

Lord, You can do far more than anything we can request or imagine (Ephesians 3:20) so we humbly ask: Please equip us to write the stories You’ve given us. And once they’re in print, use them to accomplish Your good purposes.

Help us remember

All of this is not because we’re so great, 
but because, God, You are so great!

Not because of who we are, 
but because of who You are!

May our memoirs and lives 
bring honor to You, our glorious God.

I encourage you to follow Write to Worship with Xochitl E. Dixon on Facebook. She writes lovely, deep prayers for writers.