On Avoiding Adverbs: I Disagree

wtm adverbsMany contemporary writing teachers will tell you to completely avoid using adverbs.

I disagree.  I think adverbs can be a beautiful, seamless part of prose — if they’re used well and sparingly.

In case you’ve forgotten since grammar school, an adverb is a word which modifies a verb, an adjective, or another adverb (as in very quickly).  Typically adverbs end in “ly”, like these:

I walked quickly.

He spoke sluggishly.

She laughed heartily.

Using an adverb once in a while is not a crime.  However, I think adverbs have earned a bad rap because too many writers overuse them.

Let me show you two versions of the same paragraph – one using adverbs judiciously, the other going way overboard.  Decide which is more enjoyable to read:

Version #1:

She laughed heartily at my joke.  I felt flattered.  Then she walked slowly out from behind her desk and approached me slyly. 

“I suppose I misjudged you,” she smiled, still twirling her eyeglasses playfully in one hand.  “You might be just the man for the job.”

I was sweating profusely, and my socks were clinging damply to my feet like dirty dishtowels.  Would she notice I wasn’t behaving professionally?

 

 Version #2:

Her laugh was hearty.  I felt flattered.  She sauntered out from behind her desk and approached, the portrait of sly confidence. 

“I suppose I misjudged you,” she smiled.  In one hand she played with her eyeglasses – twirling, twirling, twirling.  “You might be just the man for the job.”

The sweat poured from my scalp and down the back of my neck.  My socks were two damp dishtowels, clinging to my feet.  Would she notice I wasn’t a pro?

 

In version #1, we have adverbs gone wild: heartily, slowly, slyly, playfully, profusely, damply, professionally.

Now let’s look at version #2.  What changed?  Compare:

Version #1 Version #2
She laughed heartily at my joke.

 

Her laugh was hearty.
The she walked slowly out from behind her desk and approached me slyly. She sauntered out from behind her desk and approached, the portrait of sly confidence.

 

“I suppose I misjudged you,” she smiled, still twirling her eyeglasses playfully in one hand.  “You might be just the man for the job.”

 

“I suppose I misjudged you,” she smiled.  In one hand she played with her eyeglasses – twirling, twirling, twirling.  “You might be just the man for the job.”

 

I was sweating profusely, and my socks were clinging damply to my feet like dirty dishtowels. The sweat poured from my scalp and down the back of my neck.  My socks were two damp dishtowels, clinging to my feet.

 

Would she notice I wasn’t behaving professionally? Would she notice I wasn’t a pro?

What I want you to see is that there are alternatives to using “ly” adverbs. 

When you get to the editing stage of your memoir, scan your manuscript for excessive adverbs.  Where you see them happening too often, find a different way of saying the same thing.  Use the above table to get you into a creative mindset.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

Fast and Furious First Drafts

wtm first draftsIf you want to write that memoir before you die, I suggest you get comfortable with writing a rushed, crappy, bull-in-a-china-shop mess of a first draft.

Yeah, you read right.  Rushed.  Crappy.  A mess.

You need to write a first draft that’s a technical embarrassment.  Write a first draft that frequently makes no sense.  Let it be pure manure on a stick – and love it that way.

Your first draft should be written quickly and sloppily.  Sure, it’s O.K. if you forget something important.  Heck yeah, go ahead and use a word that doesn’t really exist.  Don’t know what name you’re going to use to disguise your best friend’s identity?  Forget about it.  Call her anything.  Call her a different name on every page, if you want.

There’s no rule that says you have to write your first draft with a computer, either.  Want to write it by hand, with a purple felt-tip pen and legal pads?  Be my guest.  Want to use your dad’s vintage typewriter?  Cool, as long as you can still get the ribbons for it.  You can write some of your first draft on your computer, and some on paper.  What matters is that you feel comfortable and motivated throughout the process.

Why is this all okay?  Because your first draft is not going to be your final book.  You’ll have plenty of opportunity to fix, change, delete or add anything you want.  That’s what drafts are for.

Wait – I just heard somebody out there thinking, “Yeah, but I want to get this memoir done.  So I’m going to write the most perfect first draft possible, so I’ll only need to make a few small changes afterward.  That way I’ll get it published a lot sooner.  Let the suckers waste time on multiple drafts.”

Fine.  Have it your way.  But a year from now, you’ll either still be sitting on an unfinished memoir and thinking, “I’m just not cut out for writing a whole book”, or you’ll have a completed memoir that people are too polite to tell you stinks.

I promise: you will actually work better – faster, more efficiently – if you start from a hastily-written, thoroughly imperfect first draft.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

Writing Dialogue in Your Memoir: Human or Robot?

humanorrobotIn a memoir, you’re writing about real people.  They should talk like real people, too. But not…exactly like real people.

Yeah, it can be tricky. But it’s not impossible.

Let me show you two different examples of dialogue, and then we’ll talk about what’s not-quite-right about them.

Example #1:

“Hello. You have reached Johnson’s Department Store.  How may I help you?”

I didn’t expect anyone to answer the phone so early.  “Hello,” I said, “My name is Marvin Miles. I am calling you this morning with a question.  I would like to speak with someone in the toy department.  Would you please connect me with the toy department?”

“Yes, I will,” the woman replied.  “Would you please hold on for a moment?”

“Yes, I will hold,” I said.

Next, a man came on the line.  “This is the toy department.  My name is Bill.  How many I help you, please?”

“Hello.  I am calling with a question about a toy.”

“Yes, sir.  What is your question?”

“I would like to know if you have a jump rope for sale which glows in the dark.  I would also like the jump rope to have yellow handles.  The handles must also be made of wood.  Do you have a jump rope like the one I am describing?”

The man thought for a moment.  “I do not know if we have a jump rope like that.  Would you please hold the line?  I will go and check our jump rope stock for you.”

Sounds like two computers talking, right?  I mean, who talks like that?  It’s possible somebody does, but you wouldn’t exactly think they were…well, normal, would you? That’s some pretty unnatural, stilted-sounding dialogue!  And tough to read, too.

Example #2:

“I can’t believe he said…oh my god, what he said!  He said…he said she was, like, the – what did he say again?  Oh my god, like she was the worst boss he ever had!  The worst boss.  The worst boss, Britt, the worst boss.  You know?”

Brittany tossed her hair back. “No way I can’t even, I mean I can’t even!  You know, I’m just thinking, like, that’s um, so harsh.  Uh…wait, do you know if he—“

“Oh my god Britt, wait, didn’t you say you wanted a milkshake before?”  I noticed the milkshake stand out of the corner of my eye.

“Totally!” Brittany’s eyes lit up.  “Chocolate for me, chocolate for me!  Oh, like, of course!  Of course, red light when we’re about to cross the street.  I’m desperate, here!  Desperate, you know?”

“Desperate for milkshakes!” I agreed.

“Desperate for milkshakes!” Brittany repeated. 

“Is there, like, one of those, um…you know…those button thingies you can push to make the traffic light turn green, or something?”

Brittany looked around.  “On my god, is it like that thingy on the, um, the pole over there?”

“Where?”

“There,” Brittany pointed.

“That’s the thingy!  That’s the thingy!  There is a thingy to change the light!  Hurry up, push it, push it.”

Just then the light changed and we proceeded across the street.

“So what were we talking about…?  Oh, yeah!  I’m just, ugh!  Can’t believe it!  Is he going to be fired now, or like put on whatchamacallit, probation?”

Wasn’t that annoying to read?

We really don’t want to read dialogue exactly as people speak it.  Real people stumble over their words, they hesitate, they wander in conversation, they say “uh” and “um” and “like” and “you know”, repeatedly.

In fact, if you had someone transcribe every audible conversation you have, precisely, you might find your own words difficult to follow on paper.  Authentic conversations that feel easy and understandable in the real world can seem downright unintelligible when written word-for-word.

So, as writers, we want to strive for dialogue that is a representation of real conversation.  It should feel authentic, but “cleaned up” – just enough so that it isn’t a chore to read.

humanorrobot2That said, I’m going to risk confusing you a little here.  Because “uh” and “um” and “like” and “you know” have their place in good writing, too.

The example I gave above was purposely over-the-top.  But remember, we also don’t want to clean up our dialogue so much that it sounds computerized.  The key to realistic dialogue falls somewhere between the two extremes.

I found a passage from Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs that offers a great example of a casual conversation between two people.  It’s not necessarily correct, concise English, but it is how real people interact.

For example, one line of dialogue includes the informal use of “like”: “…you were like this tall.”

There are sentence fragments, including this two-word line of dialogue, “A little.” 

In this sentence fragment, we see the conversational use of “you know:” “Yeah, well.  You know, now that…”

The key is to strike a balance between realism and readability.

When writing about real-life conversations in your memoir, remember that it’s unnecessary to convey every exchange word-for-word. In fact, doing so can make your writing painful to read.

Try sharing your dialogue with a friend — preferably an avid reader. Ask them:

  • What bores you about this conversation?
  • What annoys you?
  • What parts of the conversation did you most enjoy?
  • If you were going to cross out any words, phrases or lines from this conversation, what would they be?
  • What did this conversation tell you about the characters?
  • What did you learn about the story from this conversation?

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

Paying to Have Your Memoir Published? No-Bull Advice for a Better Experience

nobull1Planning to publish your memoir? You should know that there are essentially two types of book publishers: those who will pay you, and those you’ll have to pay.

What’s the Difference?

Traditional publishers will offer you money for the privilege of publishing your work, but getting this kind of deal is extremely difficult. The decision is left up to the personal whims of whomever reads the submissions. Many people spend years trying to sell their work to a traditional publisher, and sadly, die trying.

This is why publishing services have exploded in popularity. Publishers-for-hire are sometimes called service publishersself-publishing service providers or full-service publishers. They give anyone with the ability to pay the opportunity to be a published author.

This article will focus on getting the best possible results from working with a hired publisher.

Fantasies Debunked

I’ve mentored a long list of authors who’ve hired companies to publish their books. Often these folks experience confusion about what they’re getting into — even when the publishers provide crystal-clear terms in writing.

Why? Most commonly, it’s because the author has pre-conceived notions about how publishing works. What they imagine is not the reality, not even for traditional publishers. And even those with a more accurate picture of traditional publishing expect a service publisher to operate the same way, but they don’t.

Paying for Publishing: Having the Best Possible Experience

I’ve compiled the following eight nuggets to help prepare you to work with a full-service publisher. With these guidelines, you’ll have a much smoother and more pleasant experience, and will be more likely to make a success of your book.

nobull21. Don’t expect hiring a publisher to make you an instant millionaire. I think most aspiring authors understand that becoming a best-selling author requires more than just hiring a publisher. Unfortunately, there are some who whole-heartedly believe it’s a one-step plan for getting rich.

If becoming filthy rich was that easy, everybody would publish a book.

Getting your book published is just the first step.

Your publisher may be able to make your book available to consumers through sites like Amazon, but if readers don’t know your book exists, they’re not going to look for it.

Likewise, your publisher might make your book available through a distributor from which brick-and-mortar stores order books, but if the buyers from those stores haven’t heard of your book, they’re not going to carry it.

It’s the author’s job to drum up chatter about his or her book. To that end…

2. Be prepared to do your own marketing.  Many inexperienced authors assume their book publisher will aggressively market their book — and they wind up terribly disappointed and at a disadvantage.

nobull3Even traditional publishers expect authors to do the lion’s share of marketing for their own books.  When it comes to publishers-for-hire, the author should be prepared to do it all.

I don’t know of any full-service publisher who offers a full-fledged marketing program to its authors. Some may offer a small menu of a la carte marketing services like press release distribution or creating a bare-bones web page for the book, but it’s not nearly enough to generate significant sales — if any sales at all.

Don’t expect your publisher to send you on a tour, book you on talk shows, or pay for any advertising. 

One author remarked to me, “You would think the publisher would want to market my book. Isn’t it in their best interest? Don’t they stand to make more money, too?”

Service publishers make their money on the fees you pay for the work they perform — editing, typesetting, making your books available for sale in places like Amazon, etc.

They’re not counting on your book making significant money. It’s estimated that on average, self-published books (which includes books published by full-service publishers) sell about 200 copies.

That’s not to say you can’t do better. If you’re willing to work, you can get better results.

I urge you to learn as much as you can about book marketing, as early as possible. There are many potential ways to promote a book. You’ll never be able to try them all. Instead, do your research and choose one or two methods that seem most likely to get your book in front of your target audience and master them. Start with a good book on do-it-yourself book marketing.

Of course, if money is no object, you can hire a book publicist to do much of the work for you.

3. Don’t expect the publishing company to teach you how to be a better writer. I coached one author who hired a company to publish his memoir, and then was devastated to learn he wouldn’t be working directly with an editor.

nobull4The company did provide copy editing services, but there was no one-on-one consultation. This author was expecting a “buddy”. He thought he’d be spending countless hours with an editor who would help him shape and elevate his manuscript.

This is not what publishers do. Frankly, it’s not their job.

It’s the author’s job to learn their craft and refine their manuscript. This can be done by engaging a coach or a freelance editor, enrolling in classes and workshops, and joining a writer’s group where members provide constructive feedback. And all of it should be done before you approach a publisher.

Here’s something to consider: almost everyone and their grandmother wants to see their name on a published book. Publishers don’t need to knock themselves out looking for writers, because there will always be an endless stream of aspiring authors lining up at their doors.

Why, then, would a publisher spend money employing people to help writers polish their manuscripts? They don’t need to do that. They’ll make plenty of money without having to extend that kind of help, because there are plenty of authors willing to submit finely-honed manuscripts for consideration.

When you’re ready to hire a publisher, be prepared to bring them your best work. I would hate to see anyone take an “unfinished” manuscript to a publisher and then get stuck with a book they’re not entirely proud of, simply because they expected teaching or coaching to be part of the package.

4. Don’t assume a service is part of the deal. You’d be surprised how many people will sign a contract, and then start asking questions. Not a smart way to go. Instead, read your agreement with the publisher carefully before signing.

Agreements with publishers are typically not that long. Read the whole thing — you can handle it. And if you don’t understand something you’ve read, ask about it.

Most importantly, don’t assume anything about what the company will do for you. For example, if your agreement doesn’t explicitly say that the company’s going to produce an audio version of your book, don’t assume they will, just because you think “that’s what publishers do”.

The more you understand exactly what you’re getting, the better prepared you’ll be to take up the slack and make a success of your book.

nobull55. Be prepared to provide photos in digital format. Most service publishers will allow you to include photos inside your book. However, in order to give you the best print quality, they typically need the images in a high-resolution, digital format.

If your photos are prints, don’t assume the publisher will convert them to digital for you. Ask before signing your agreement. You may need to find a photo professional who can convert the photos for you at your own expense.

nobull6Knowing what you need ahead of time will minimize publication delays.

6. Make sure you have permission to use your images. If you have images you want included inside your book, you must own them. Legally, publishers can’t publish images that belong to anyone other than the author.

A photo or illustration belongs to you if you created it. If someone else created it, you need that person’s permission to use it in your book. If your book is being published for profit, the owner of the image may want to be paid for letting you use it.

Some people assume that if an image is on the Internet, it can be used by anyone, anywhere, for free. Not true.

Some images are old enough that their copyright has expired, meaning they are now in the “public domain” and can be used freely, but you’ll want to be very sure about that before you use them.

Your publisher will want proof that you have the legal right to reproduce all of your images.

To be on the safe side, only use images that you created yourself — meaning you drew them, or in the case of photos, you took them.

7. Don’t go rogue and do things your way. Throughout the process of publishing your book, you will probably receive numerous communications from your publisher. There will inevitably be instructions, such as requests for you to provide information or review and approve the publisher’s work.

Make an effort to follow instructions as precisely as possible. Don’t try to do things your way, assuming that the way information is delivered doesn’t matter. Publishers typically have a well-defined process, and resisting it will only delay the publication of your book.  And wouldn’t you prefer to have it in your hands sooner rather than later?

Following instructions also means resisting the urge to send information the publisher didn’t ask for because you’re trying to anticipate their needs. Unfortunately, that can cause confusion on the publisher’s end and delays on yours.

nobull78. Make sure your email can reliably receive attachments. It’s possible your publisher will be sharing attachments with you by email, such as edited drafts of your manuscript. 

However, in an effort to protect you from malware and viruses, some email servers block emails with attachments or reroute them to “spam” or “junk” folders.

Meanwhile, weeks or even months may go by and you don’t know what you’re missing. Your publisher is waiting for your response, your project is at a standstill, and you haven’t seen a crucial email.

At the outset of you project, ask the publisher to email you a test attachment. You might also consider setting up a free Gmail account through Google, which tends to be highly reliable in delivering non-threatening attachments.

***

There’s no shame in sidestepping traditional publishing and paying to have your book published. Why wait years for the approval of an editor at a giant publishing conglomerate that may never come?

Self-publishing services and full-service publishers can help you reach your goals with offerings that make your book available to readers around the world. You’ll need to take an active part in the promotion of your book, but that’s the exciting part. The potential success of your book is under your control.

How far do you want to go?

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Major Blind Spot for Memoir Writers: Are You Guilty?

blindspot1It’s a mistake that’s so darn easy for memoir writers make: we assume our reader knows what (or who) we know.

We know the people and subjects about which we’re writing so intimately that we might leave out important details that our reader needs to follow along.

For example, we might write that we went to dinner with Thomas, but failed to tell the reader who Thomas is.  Maybe we wrote a paragraph introducing Thomas in an earlier draft, but that passage was cut.  Somehow, we’ll have to find a way of letting our reader meet him again.

As memoirists, we need to make sure everyone gets a formal introduction.  Otherwise, our reader may be sitting there with our book, saying, “Wait – who the heck is Thomas?”

A writer who’s been engaged in a particular career, hobby or other activity for years needs to be especially mindful of being too vague.  Have you ever met someone who, in ordinary conversation, threw out technical jargon and other terminology with which you were unfamiliar?  It might be like going to dinner with a world-class chef and hearing him use culinary terms that many of us wouldn’t use in describing food.  For him, talking about the umami quality of a sauce, or dropping phrases like bain marie or à la Crécy is perfectly normal.  To someone who doesn’t cook at all, those terms are completely alien.

blindspot3Years ago in a college creative writing class, we students read an excerpt from a fellow student’s memoir.  She was older than the rest of us by at least thirty years.  She wrote about participating in a civil rights march – a lesser-known march, one that took place in the small town where she grew up.

In her story, she dropped names of people, places and events that were unfamiliar to me, my classmates, and even our instructor.  (None of us had even been born by the time this march took place, and it wasn’t significant enough to make it into a mainstream public school education.)

The student acted shocked when the rest of the class confessed to being confused by her story.  There was so much background information that we needed to know in order to follow her tale – information that she failed to give us.

If we’d been told a few simple facts about the people involved, and some background leading up to events, we would’ve understood what we were reading.  But somehow, this student forgot that the rest of us did not live in her head.  We didn’t have automatic recall of the events she’d witnessed.  She failed to paint a complete enough picture.

When writing your memoir, remember that we, your readers, weren’t there with you – we only know as much as you choose to tell us.  Make sure you tell us enough so that your story makes sense. There are two effective ways of doing this:

blindspot2Have someone else read your memoir.

Once you’ve finished your first draft, give a copy to at least one friend you trust.  Have her read it and make notes about anything she doesn’t understand.  Make sure she knows you’re not asking for feedback on spelling or grammar – just on the clarity of the story you’re telling.

You’ll know you have some revising to do if:

 

  1. She has tons of questions. This might mean you left out key information, or that you need to elaborate.

 

  1. She gets confused. You might need to focus parts of your work more tightly, or add or subtract details.

 

  1. You ask her to summarize all or part of the book, and she can’t. You might have bored her, in which case maybe you didn’t use enough detailed description.  Alternatively, maybe she gives you the wrong answer.  Maybe you’ve written a memoir about raising alpacas, and she tells you, “Obviously, this is a book about divorce.”  You might be writing too much about the wrong things.  Or, maybe you should be writing about divorce.

 

Read your memoir as if you’re a stranger.

When you’ve finished your first draft, try reading it through from beginning to end, imagining you’re someone else. Read it through the eyes of someone who has never heard your stories before, has never met you. Does everything make sense?  Then, read it again – out loud.  You might be surprised by how much you missed.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

 

Does Your Memoir Have WAY Too Many Characters?

wtmcharacters1In your life to date, you’ve likely encountered thousands of people.  Maybe hundreds of thousands.  The kids down the block you pummeled in snowball fights.  Your teachers.  Co-workers. The guy who used to cut your lawn.  The lady who delivered your pizzas in college.

You’ve crossed paths with a lot of people when you think about it, especially if you’ve lived in more than one place.

Do you plan on mentioning every single one of those people in your memoir?

Of course not.

But who you leave out is worth discussing, because many first-time memoirists fill their books with unnecessary people.

Character Clutter

I like to call it “character clutter.”  Too many characters can be distracting and confusing.

When the narrator of a story takes the time to name a character, or at least provide memorable details about him, your subconscious takes note.  Somewhere in your brain, you’re thinking, “I need to pay attention to this person, because he’s going to come into play in this story, sooner or later.  If he didn’t, then the author wouldn’t have mentioned him.”

Read this example of a character being introduced in a memoir.  It’s from The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir by Bill Bryson:

In the late 1950s, the Royal Canadian Air Force produced a booklet on isometrics, a form of exercise that enjoyed a short but devoted vogue with my father.  The idea of isometrics was that you used any unyielding object, like a tree or a wall, and pressed against it with all your might from various positions to tone and strengthen different groups of muscles.  Since everybody already has access to trees and walls, you didn’t need to invest in a lot of costly equipment, which I expect was what attracted my dad.

What made it unfortunate in my father’s case is that he would do his isometrics on airplanes.  At some point in every flight, he would stroll back to the galley area or the space by the emergency exit and, taking up the posture of someone trying to budge a very heavy piece of machinery, he would begin to push with his back or shoulder against the outer wall of the plane, pausing occasionally to take deep breaths before returning with quiet grunts to the task.

Now, imagine you’ve finished reading that entire book, and the character of the author’s father never shows up again.

That would be weird, wouldn’t it?  You might close the book and feel uneasy for a minute before you say, “Hey, wait a minute – what happened to the dad with the isometrics obsession?”

When an author takes the time to introduce a character, the reader expects that character to play some important role.  It doesn’t mean the character will appear on every page, but we know we’ll see him again, or we’ll at least see the effects of something he did off the page.

That’s why it’s important to keep your cast of characters “lean.”

wtmcharacters2Why Go Lean?

Just because you have ten brothers and sisters doesn’t mean you have to bring every single sibling into your memoir.  That might be tough on the reader – too many distinct people to keep up with.

However, there’s a good chance that not every one of your siblings plays a major role in the stories you’re telling.  In life, people in big families usually develop closer relationships with one or two siblings in particular.  If that’s true for you, there’s no reason you have to tell us what every child in the family was doing during every story you tell.  Focus on the people who were directly involved in each tale.

Sometimes it makes sense to exclude a person from a story, or even an entire book.  You might be tempted to write them in for the sake of accuracy.  After all, aren’t you supposed to be telling it as it really happened?  Telling the truth?

Yes.  But you’re not writing an article for the newspaper — you’re writing a memoir.  A memoir calls for good storytelling, even if the stories are true.  And good storytelling sometimes calls for leaving things out.

Combining Characters

Another way to deal with “character clutter” in a memoir is to combine characters.

Suppose you’re writing a memoir about the years you spent writing copy for large advertising agencies.  Imagine that your career spanned at least five decades.  That’s a lot of years on the job, and certainly you worked with a lot of different people in that time.

wtmcharacters3And suppose that early in your memoir, you mention some casual conversations between you and your first office mate – a guy named Harvey.

But then suppose Harvey was only your co-worker for a short time before he moved to New Zealand.  A new person took his place – a guy named Ted.

And you and Ted became pals, much like you and Harvey were pals.  But let’s say Ted was your office mate for only 18 months before he got shipped off to a facility upstate to “get some rest”.

Six more friendly office mates followed before you eventually earned your own office.

Maybe only one or two of those office mates played a truly significant role in your life – the others, not so much.  Are you going to take up space in your memoir naming every single office mate, details of their lives, why they came and went?

That might be a mistake.  It could amount to character clutter, distracting the reader from what’s key to your story.

That’s not to say you can’t relate different conversations you had with these minor players.  You might tell an anecdote here or there about what happened to them.

Instead of giving significant space in your memoir to so many insignificant characters, you might consider combining those office mates into one or two characters.  This is sometimes referred to as creating a “composite” character.  Maybe one represents your office mate at your first job, and the other represents the office mate at the second firm you worked for.

We don’t need to know that, technically, you had three different office mates at your first job.  What we really need to know is that you had an office mate you could confide in – someone who made your days easier, maybe provided some much-needed comic relief.  So provide us with that character.

This technique can work well in party scenes (do we really need to be introduced to every guest at your wedding, or will one rowdy uncle representing most of your mother’s side of the family suffice?), and in simplifying childhood friendships (if Mindy, Lindsay and Coco were your best girlfriends over the years, can they be combined into one girl who worshipped Paul McCartney and collected S&H Green Stamps?).

Please note that the memoir police will not come after you for combining characters.  This, like changing names, is commonly done.  In most cases, it makes for better, cleaner writing.   Don’t fret because in your memoir, you gave yourself two fewer nieces than you really have, when Alice is the only one you really talk to anyway.  There’s no law against saying you worked for a personal injury attorney instead of a maritime law practitioner.  These are common and valid ways of tweaking reality to either protect someone’s privacy or create a smoother read.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone. 

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011). 

Who Cares About Your Life Story? Why the Scope of the Memoir You’re Writing Matters

wtmrnnarrow1I’m going to take the risk of sounding like a jerk.  But I’m not trying to discourage you from writing.  On the contrary, I want you to take the smartest possible approach to writing your memoir – the one most likely to fulfill your personal goals.  So hang in there with me and see if what I have to say makes sense.

Consider for a minute that there are billions of people in the world.  And most people think their own lives are pretty darn interesting.  It’s human nature.  We’re all biased that way.

And most people like to read.  But people also have limited time and energy.  Few people – if any – will read every book ever written.  We’re selective about what we read.  We choose what we expect to enjoy the most.

So if a reader is going to choose to read a broad, chronological account of someone else’s life, chances are, they’ll pick up an autobiography about someone they’ve heard of before.  A celebrity.  An actor, chef, politician.  Maybe the CEO of a multi-billion-dollar company that’s a household name.

The average person doesn’t know why they should care about your life – the house you grew up in, your favorite teacher, your crazy college days, your first career, your second career, your first marriage, your third divorce.  To most people on the planet, you’re a stranger.

But remember, a memoir is different from an autobiography.  It represents a small portion of a person’s life.  A particular period of time, a challenge overcome, a lesson learned.

If you want your memoir to be read by lots of other people who don’t already know you, you’ll have the best chance if you write a memoir and not an autobiography.  Narrow your focus and you’ll broaden your appeal.

summerattiffanyAn Example of Focus in Memoir

For example, you might decide to write an entire memoir about one summer of your life, like Marjorie Hart did in Summer at Tiffany.

As an Iowa college student in 1945, Hart took a summer job at Tiffany’s in New York City and passed the sweltering months going out on the town with handsome young sailors and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.  Yes, she filled an entire book with tales from one summer of her life – and it’s delightful.  It also attracted many readers among people the author never met.

Why did a memoir about one summer have more appeal than a book about Marjorie Hart’s entire life, from birth to the present?

The audience for a Hart autobiography would be rather small, consisting of her family members and close friends.  They’re the people who love her; they have the most interest in reading about her whole life.

But when Hart went into detail about her whirlwind summer in the big city, she touched on thoughts, feelings and experiences that many readers could relate to.  That’s a memoir.

A Narrower Focus Gives You Freedom!

Here’s how narrowing the focus of your book can actually give you more freedom.  The idea might seem limiting at first, but think of all the details you’ll have to skip over or rush through if you’re trying to cover all the major events of your life in one book.

Besides, your memoir might convey a lot more than just your story.  It might also be a valuable chronicle of history, detailing what it was like in a particular time and place.  Summer at Tiffany, for example, actually does double-duty.  Not only is it an entertaining read, but it also serves as an historical account of young women living and working in New York City in 1945.

wtmrnnarrow2When you focus on one aspect of your life, you can afford to take your time and richly convey details to your reader.  You can delve into your feelings in the moment, and share your insights after the fact.  And when you recall your experiences through all five senses, you deliver a product that resonates with the reader and is not soon forgotten.  These are the kinds of books people want to tell their friends about.

So, in short, you can’t expect legions of perfect strangers to care about your life, from soup to nuts.  But you’ll increase your chances of capturing the interest of strangers with a more specific story, lesson, or message.

Another Good Example

Here’s another example.  We already know that Joe Schmoe doesn’t have a great chance of selling his entire life story to a bunch of readers who’ve never heard of him, and are too busy to care.  But what if Joe Schmoe was diagnosed with a rare, fatal disease – a disease that no one survives for more than a few months – and he defied that illness to live a robust thirty years, post-diagnosis?

Joe has a great story to tell.  Joe’s memoir won’t spend much time on his childhood (unless he was diagnosed as a child).  He won’t talk much about his years following the Grateful Dead on tour (unless it relates somehow to his disease – maybe the fact that he was able to follow the band, despite doctors’ warnings that he wouldn’t have the energy).  Joe won’t write much about going to law school (except maybe to say that he withstood the pressure despite his disease).

wtmrnnarrow3Joe’s story now appeals to lots of people.  It appeals to people with his disease, and people who love someone with the same disease.  It appeals to anyone with a fatal illness looking for hope or encouragement.  It might appeal to doctors and scientists with an interest in disease.  It might appeal to anyone facing a great trial in life, looking for inspiration in a story of unlikely triumph.

Your Focus Doesn’t Have to Be Earth-Shattering

A memoir can be about more commonplace experiences, too.

Maybe Jane has a great sense of comedy and tells her friends hilarious stories about surviving her divorce.  Jane might have a humorous memoir in her – one that will appeal to millions of other women facing divorce.

Perhaps Anne-Marie had a long history of car trouble, and decided once and for all to become the master of her vehicle.  Maybe she spent three months taking automotive classes and was the only woman in a class of guys at least forty years younger than her.  And maybe Anne-Marie transformed in multiple ways through her experience – not only did she eventually build an engine from the ground up, but she found herself in a love triangle with two handsome young bucks.

That could be a memoir, too.

wtmrnnarrow4EXERCISE: Find Your Focus

So, if you’re going to narrow the focus of your book, how will you decide what the focus will be?

It can seem overwhelming.  But following are some questions you can ask yourself that may help you zero-in on the best idea for you.

  1. What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

 

  1. If you were going to leave a note for your grandchild to open on his or her 18th birthday, containing three key pieces of advice about life, what would you write?

 

  1. Do you ever look around at the greater population and think, “If only they knew what I know”? What do you want them to understand, and how did you come to understand it?

 

  1. Do you ever tell stories to groups of people that keep them riveted, or even make them laugh? Do you ever get requests to “tell that story again”?  What are your most popular stories, and why do you think people want to hear them?  Do most of these stories have something in common?

 

  1. Are you able to complete this sentence?: My life was never the same after ______.

 

  1. What are you an expert in?

 

  1. What was the single biggest turning point in your life?

 

  1. What’s the most unusual situation you ever found yourself in? How did you adjust to or cope with it?

 

  1. What’s your favorite memory? What about that memory is so special?  What about that memory do you think other people would relate to?

 

  1. How have you changed the most?

 

  1. How can your life experience help other people?

 

  1. Did you play a role in a major historical event? What was your role?  How did it affect your life afterward?

 

  1. What one thing are you most proud of in your life so far?

 

  1. What’s one thing most people have difficulty with, but that you were able to master?

 

  1. Did you ever say to yourself, “From now on, I’m living my life differently”? Did you stay true to your word?

 

  1. Most of us have moments when we sigh and say, “Ah, those were the good old days.” When were your good old days?  What’s the one event that, in your mind, defines those days as “good”?

 

  1. Did you achieve something that took immense patience and dedication? How did you get through it?

 

  1. Did you make it to the top of your profession? How did you get there?  What was it like when you finally got to the top?  Was it everything you thought it would be?

 

  1. Can you complete this sentence?: Most people would never believe this about me, but I ______.

 

  1. When have you completely surprised yourself?

 

If you’ve been thinking hard, chances are you’ve identified several areas of your life that could translate into separate memoirs.  If this is the case, don’t let it overwhelm you.  Don’t tell yourself, “I’ll never be able to choose one narrow focus!”  Here’s what I want you to remember: you can always write another memoir about another subject.  Remember that many authors have written several memoirs.  Look at Josh Kilmer-Purcell.  His first memoir, I Am Not Myself These Days, was about his days as a drag queen.  He’s also the author of The Bucolic Plague: How Two Manhattanites Became Gentlemen Farmers: An Unconventional Memoir.

If you’re having trouble choosing a focus, remember that your writing career doesn’t have to end with this one book.  Just decide which focus is calling to you most strongly right now.  Start there.  Write that memoir first.

To get one-on-one help with your memoir, request a coaching session by phone

Kim Brittingham is the author of Write That Memoir Right Now (AudioGo/Blackstone, 2013) and Read My Hips: How I Learned to Love My Body, Ditch Dieting and Live Large (Random House, 2011).