Saturday, April 28, 2018

Bringing Your Life Story to Life: Writing Memoir

This post originally appeared on OCWriters.Network, a network of published and aspiring authors. Find them here.  Also, I will be leading an intensive two-day memoir track at the Sunriver Writers’ Summit in Bend, Oregon the last weekend in May, May 26th/27th. FYI, the $75 discount is still good until May 1, so it's only $250 for the weekend workshop. Here is the link to my memoir track.

I recently read an article in the Spectator called “Biography is a Thoroughly Reprehensible Genre." The writer commented on the amount of pointless detail in most biography, and I see that often with my clients who are writing memoir—I always say that the trick with memoir is not what you put in but what you leave out.

But, the author of the article said something else that was key, “the chief problem with biography is that the fundamental precepts are wrong…the idea always seems to be that by gathering and establishing facts, cataloging testimonies and anecdotes, each life can be made a perfect whole — that the objective biographer will see to it that there has been a plan or pattern, and dignity is conferred.”

It’s exactly the same with memoir. Writing a memoir by simply assembling all the facts about your life in the months or years you’ve chosen to write about is a bit like doing a complicated jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box. You could keep adding detail—writing descriptions and adding information—but all along, you’d be wondering what it would all turn out to be.

That means, unfortunately, that if you’re writing a memoir about your battle with cancer, you will not have written a memoir because you kept a meticulous journal of every day in the two years from diagnosis to remission. There would be things in your daily journal that would be repetitive, or that simply don’t belong in your story, and details that would bore readers to death.

So, let’s assume you already have a great pile of notes, notebooks full of journaling, or other writing about the period in your life you’ve chosen to write about. How do you bring it to life, or bring it back to life? How do you know what belongs in the manuscript and what doesn’t?

I’m glad you asked.

You begin by figuring out what your story is about. That’s the essence of “pitching” any book concept, not just memoir. And that “pitch” (or “log-line” for you Hollywood types) is not just what happens in the book, like, for instance, “I’m autistic and in 2009, I climbed Mt Everest.” The pitch needs to include what you want people to get from what happened to you—what you learned along the way to that made you want to write the book. More like “I’m autistic, and, while climbing Mt. Everest, I learned that I can do anything I set my mind to.” Or, to go back to our first memoir concept: “I beat cancer by learning to listen very carefully to what my own body was telling me.”

Once you have clarified that specific goal, and know what you want to say in the book, the rest is easy…Well, actually it isn’t. But it is easier!

Hopefully, you can figure out this first step before you start writing, but it doesn’t always work that way. Perhaps you have a completed first draft of the memoir already and want to get it looked at by an editor, but you aren’t quite sure it is ready.

One sign will be if you finish your first draft and it’s over 120,000 words long. Not that a tight, well-crafted memoir can’t be that long, but most manuscripts that long will need cutting. Another sign is a memoir of only 40,000 words. The manuscript may have great bones (a strong idea and structural outline), but not enough meat on the skeleton; it probably needs to be fleshed out more to become the excellent book it can be.

My short-form nonfiction and memoir has been published in national magazines and anthologies, and oftentimes the challenge of figuring out where and how to start writing was solved once I came up with a title for my essay. After all, writing an essay is basically defending an argument. So, my essay’s title (or a story “pitch”), gives me a constant goal to aim for, which is sticking to that point—that argument, if you will—and keeping that message clear throughout the book.

So, you can look at every one of the hundreds of notes you have amassed (or any questionable segment in the manuscript you’ve written) and say to yourself “Does this help me to further clarify or prove this book’s point?” If not, out it goes.

Don’t scream—of course, there will be pieces that seem tangential but turn out to reveal something that is important, or that take us readers somewhere we need to go, and those will stay in. But you do have to be a ruthless, even before you start working with an editor. Be honest with yourself—is this tangent only staying in the book because you liked writing about it? Or because you think you wrote it really well? Remember the line about “killing your darlings”? You have to, even in memoir.

With your book’s overarching point firmly established in your mind, you (and eventually your editor) can find ways to eliminate false starts and dead-ends that could doom your memoir, and find a clear path to resurrect your story and share it with the world.

Hasta pronto!

I will be leading an intensive two-day memoir track at the Sunriver Writers’ Summit in Bend, Oregon the last weekend in May, May 26th/27th. FYI, the $75 discount is still good until May 1, so it's only $250 for the weekend workshop. Here is the info.

Monday, March 5, 2018

You're So Cute When You're Mad!" #BOAW2018

This post is part of The Beauty of a Woman BlogFest VII! To read more entries, and potentially win a fun prize, visit the fest page (link this to on August’s McLaughlin’s site between today and 11pm PST March 9th. 

All of us women have been there, right? You're really pissed off, totally steaming mad at a guy—maybe it isn't always a guy, but in my life, it was always a guy—and he says with a smile "You're so cute when you're mad!"
      Well, let me tell you something, "ladies," we may well be cute when we're mad, but that doesn't take anything away from our personal and collective power. And I think that a lot of the men out there that thought "how cute is that?" when we got ticked off one at a time, are beginning to look around at the world (and the media) and see a lot of extremely angry women, which might make them wonder why they ever thought it was cute!
      Personally, I think justifiably angry women are beautiful, because I think real emotion and personal power are both beautiful, and sometimes angry is precisely what is happening. There are a lot of women out there who have put up and shut up for years, and right now they are all saying "time's up!" No longer will I accept being treated as a sexual object without feelings and emotions and a mind. No longer will I sit back at work and watch other people get ahead of me undeservedly. No longer will I tolerate being treated as a worker-robot, an interchangeable automaton without a brain.    
  Time is up for all of that!
  I was recently at the second annual Women's March here in San Diego, and it was there, surrounded by women (and men) of all ages, races, shapes, and sizes that I realized how beautiful the emotion was that had brought us there. And, make no mistake, as happy as we were to be there together that day, we'd all been brought there by one basic emotion—we were mad as hell and we were not going to take it anymore!
     I was there with my niece (proud to call herself a "Nasty Woman"), her mom, and about 30,000 other inspired, dedicated, hard-working women. Some of us were dressed in pink and many were holding signs that spelled out just how fed up we were—done with misogyny, racism, sexism, and every other kind of intolerance. (Sure, some of that anger was directed at a particular man who currently holds a powerful office, but we all know that he's not the real problem, he's just a very ugly symptom of the systemic problem).
     We marched and we chanted. We were united, we were one, we were energized, and we were all beautifully determined to keep up the fight.
     To that end we will keep marching, keep speaking out (#metoo #timesup), and work to instigate change by running for office, by volunteering to help put worthy people into government, and by taking to the polls by the millions come November.
     And that is something I find incredibly beautiful.
     hasta pronto!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Getting Ready for SCWC...It's Almost Time!

Yes, it's February and less than a week until the Southern California Writers Conference here in San Diego.  I lalways ook forward to President's Day weekend with great expectations, knowing I'll learn a lot, even as I get to teach a lot!
I know I've said all this before, but bear with me as I remind you of a few reason to attend SCWC:
1. To find your "tribe"! The most important reason of all—we all need people in our life that "get" us and "get" our writing...You can find them at SCWC!
2. To meet industry professionals, and not just see them at a panel. Where else can you chat with agents and editors and successful authors in an informal setting like coffee or drinks? (Too many conferences are "cattle calls" where the pros all hang out together and you never actually meet anyone except other first-timers.)
3. To get professional eyes on your work. Amateur authors often submit their manuscript when they finish their first draft, because they're tired of working on it...but the book isn't ready to be published. Whether you take some pages to read and critique meetings or  to late night "rogues," you'll learn what is working—and what isn't.

4. To learn more about craft and story, and to learn what's happening in the industry. From workshops on publishing, marketing, & promotion for your published book, to great speakers who have all "been there, done that." One of those speakers this year is Eric Peterson, my client and friend, and author of "The Dining Car." (SHAMELESS PLUG: Now available as an Audiobook!)
5. Because it's so flippin' fun! We all need to get out from behind our desks and meet other writers and socialize once in a while. And who doesn't want to hang out with a talented, inspiring, upbeat group of creative souls?
See you there—hasta pronto!

Friday, January 5, 2018

SCWC & the Sunriver Writers' Summit in May

As all my followers know, I love the Southern California Writers Conference (SCWC), and believe that attending this excellent conference is important for aspiring writers, published authors, and even for indie publishers. I'll be teaching at SCWC in September in Irvine, but this post is really about their new Summit in Oregon in May.

           The Sunriver Writers' Summit is, as its name suggests, something quite different from a typical conference, and there are some compelling reasons to attend this two-day event, besides the fact that I'll be teaching there with the always-inspiring Judy Reeves and Michael Steven Gregory. 

First, the elements that make up a typical conference can make it a bit overwhelming—the plethora of workshops to attend, the many things to do before and after workshops. At the Writers' Summit, you'll be in one of three intensive tracks (check them out here) for both days. You'll concentrate on one subject—for instance, writing, polishing, and producing a great memoir, in my track—and focus on that exclusively. Obviously, there's a lot to cover within that subject, so you won't get bored!

           The second reason is that we all get stuck sometimes—whether we're just starting a project and need a push to get us going in the right direction, or have written a manuscript and know we need help figuring out what part of it is a book, or have a book and no idea of how to "get it out there." I hear all the time from writers how they spent years in a creative rut, until the right class, with the right person, at the right time, helped to propel them to a whole new level.

           Another reason is that all of us track leaders have been there, not just writing and editing, but selling and promoting projects and published books. We'll not only share with you the benefit of our years of experience, but answer specific questions about your project.

           Finally, the Summit will be held in beautiful Sunriver, Oregon (located in Central Oregon, very close to Redmond Municipal Airport) at the spectacular Sunriver Resort Lodge. May is the perfect time to visit this part of the Pacific Northwest, and the Lodge is a perfect setting for creativity.

           So, why not take the opportunity for a life-and-work-changing weekend in a gorgeous natural setting? Dates for the upcoming Summit are May 26-27, 2018. Don't wait—the Summit registration fee will be discounted if you register by May 1.

           hasta pronto—see you soon!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Five Books I Read in 2017—and Recommend

It’s time for me to list five books I loved in 2017. As always, I leave off the bestsellers—the ten titles you’ve read about ten times in the last ten weeks of top ten books lists. I tried to keep it to works published in 2017, but I included a couple from 2016 that I discovered this year.

I am also, as always, not listing the books I edited in 2017, but I will tell you that the key author name to remember is Clay Savage…He’s got a half-dozen excellent manuscripts written in a variety of genres—it sounds unbelievable, but he’s crazy talented and prolific. Don’t worry, I'll let you know when his books are being published.

I will mention one collection that includes a story of mine: The Insider’s Guide to the Best of Mexico: 42 experts tell you where to sun, swim, eat, stay, and celebrate the real Mexico (2017) edited by Carmen Amato. This little ebook is a treasure—filled with short pieces by some well-known Mexico writers, like Jinx Schwartz, author of the always-enjoyable Hetta Coffey Series. Not a typical travel guide, this includes unique tidbits, offbeat adventures, and actual insider insights—and best of all, it is currently free on Kindle!

So...On to my "top five" list for 2017:

What Remains True by Janis Thomas (2017) isn’t just my favorite book this year, it’s already one of my favorites of the decade. One sign of a great book is that I want to read it again, and I wanted to reread this one as soon as I finished it. A true literary artist has the ability to step inside other people’s heads and inhabit them, and Thomas has done that here, in spades. Oddly enough, I had just finished reading Stars in The Grass, which deals with a similar situation—a family dealing with the loss of a young child— and as good as Ann Marie Stewart is, her book paled in comparison to the raw power of What Remains True. I don’t want to spoil anything by telling you more, just read it!

The Book of Moon by George Crowder (2016) This book reminded me of a California take on The Dirty Parts of the Bible, but I enjoyed it much more. Moon Landing may be only fifteen but he’s no kid; this coming-of-age story is told from the point of view of a very adult young man. Moon is concerned with the disintegration of his family due to his parents divorce, but he’s also worried about sex, death, global problems, world religions, and his own spirituality.

The Leavers by Lisa Ko (2017) I try not to hype any books that showed up on national “best of the year” lists, but I had to include The Leavers, because I this book is a must-read for anyone interested in issues of migration, immigration, and assimilation, as I am (and if you are not interested in these subjects, why not?). The story builds slowly, and was tough to get into, so be patient; I almost gave up on it, and I am so glad I didn’t. It might change the way you look at life in these United States.

The Eagle Tree by Ned Hayes (2016) This quirky book is a winner, and could be read by nature lovers of almost any age—the protagonist is a 14-year-old autistic boy who is in love with trees, and one tree in particular. If you enjoy reading about the outdoors, the Pacific Northwest, or stories told by unusual narrators, you’ll love The Eagle Tree. And if you loved The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, you will adore this book. The Kindle edition is on sale right now.

Still I Rise: The Persistence of Phenomenal Women by Marlene Wagman-Geller, with a foreword by Laurel Corona. The book highlights the struggles and accomplishments of important women of our era, like Betty Shabazz, Nellie Sachs, Selma Lagerlof, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bessie Coleman, and Lois Wilson (if you don’t recognize their names, you obviously need this book). In spite of the spotty editing, I definitely recommend this addictively-readable resource. It's important to all of us, and future generations, that our written histories tell the other half of history.