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Showing posts from September, 2009

Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place

Today we welcome Susan Wittig Albert, prolific author of numerous mystery novels , perhaps less commonly known as the creator of the Story Circle Network , and now author of her first memoir, Together, Alone: A Memoir of Marriage and Place . ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Dani: Susan, we've talked all week about memoirs, and earlier we discussed the Story Circle Network which you founded. What prompted you to start that group ten years ago? Why then? Susan: I’d been teaching lifewriting (journaling and memoir) to women for five or six years, and I’d just written Writing From Life . I wanted to encourage women to document their lives--to tell the true stories of their experiences--and it seemed to me that what we needed was sustained personal encouragement from other women. A book can help give guidance, but I felt an organization could best do that job. (For more backstory, click here .) Dani: Why write a memoir? Susan: There are lots of reasons: to record your life; get cle

Designing the Memoir Cover

After I have come to understand, have intuited, as best I can, the person and the message and even the audience of the book, then it is time for me to think about the clothing of the cover. In fact, I do not design the cover until the interior is fully designed and, usually, not until the inside of the book is formatted and has been returned to the author or copyeditor for editing. By then I will have spent enough time with the book, with the person and message, to get a sense of what the clothing should be. Sometimes the clothing should be strong and bold as the writing inside, even garish. Sometimes the clothing should be quiet and unassuming and yet so beautiful and pristine in its simplicity that it catches the attention of the passing reader who will want to pick it up. When I go into a bookstore, what catches my eye is what responds to the mood I am in when I am in the store. If I am in the mood for something quiet, I gravitate to a cover that is quiet. If I am in the mood for s

Inside the Memoir Design

To me a book is like a person, especially a memoir. It is like a person’s spirit or soul. And the cover is like that person’s clothing or how that person is first seen in the world. In designing a memoir, I always start with the inside because I want to get to know the person, or the story or message or personality or soul, first. I read as much as I can of the book. Sometimes all that’s necessary is a synopsis, along with a few chapters. Sometimes I need to read the whole book. But when I read, I listen with my entire being. I listen to who the person is who is writing and what he or she is writing about. I want to hear the nuances with my inner ear. Is the author someone who is out in the world in a very fast-paced way? Or writing from a place of solitude? Is the author extremely forceful, bold, aggressive? Or gentle, quiet-spoken, spending most of his or her time in a place in the clouds or in the river? What are the subtleties of the person who falls somewhere in between? And wha

Memoir or Fiction?

Women who have unusual occupations or do out-of-the-ordinary things have always been a source of fascination to me. Maybe it’s because I was raised as an independent self-reliant girl on an isolated eastern Montana ranch. Or maybe because I had a grandmother who rode steers in rodeos during the 1920s. For many years, I believed her story should be told. But she wasn’t a famous personality like Annie Oakley or Dale Evans, so who would be interested in publishing a biography about a little-known Montana cowgirl from the 1920s? Still, because I was a journalist, at first I attempted to write non-fiction stories based on anecdotes my dad told me or newspaper clippings I found in a scrapbook my grandmother put together. The stories were stilted, the characters wooden. I was frustrated. I knew these people. Why couldn’t I make them come alive on the page? I finally realized I was too close to the subject. I couldn’t put words in my grandparents’ mouths. I didn’t know how they felt. I wished

Welcome to Memoir Week

This week, we're taking a look at the subject of memoir writing. Hardly a day goes by that we don't hear of yet another celebrity tell-all book, and a quick Google search will bring up thousands of once-and-future life stories of the rich and famous. Memoirs are so hot that people are fabricating juicy ones just to get a slice of the publishing pie. First let's quickly define a memoir . It isn't an autobiography in which a person details his life from birth until now. It's a portion of that story told less as straight fact, and more from the author's subjective view of events and aspects of their life. To that end, the creative possibilities are endless, and indeed many contemporary memoirs are as fascinating and thought-provoking as a well-written novel. I first started thinking about memoir after answering an extensive questionnaire for the movie, Brats: Our Journey Home . Upon completion, I realized that not only did I have a tremendous word-count, but some

Don't Use a "Laundry List"

Really effective description doesn’t rely on the “laundry list” method. You know, what you often read in popular fiction when a character enters a room - a detailed listing of what the room looks like, or a physical description of a character. And just because some well-known and successful writers handle description that way, doesn’t necessarily mean it is the best way. It’s one way, and perhaps the easiest way, but not the best way. I learned to go for the best way of doing something when I was a kid. My father and I were fixing up an old bike, and it was my job to sand the frame for painting while he worked on the rest of it. I started with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, but it was hard, hard work and I soon tired of it. So the day I presented the frame to him for painting, he noted the spots of rust that I had ignored. He said we could paint it that way if I wanted to, but the paint would probably flake off. If I wanted a really good paint job on my bike, I should take th

Keeping the Story Straight

People may think editors are a little too anal, nit-picking over the smallest detail, but sometimes that smallest detail, when it’s wrong, can jerk the reader right out of the story, and that’s the last thing an author would want to happen. One of the details editors look for is continuity, making sure that the time-line is correct and making sure that an object or a person is properly introduced. You don’t want a character to pick up a gun that was never on the table. In filming, there is a person who carefully notes what is in a scene, where items and people are, what characters are wearing, etc, so if that scene has to be re-shot, everything will be in the right place. That person also watches the time line, making sure that costume and set changes are made when time has passed in the story. For novels, it is part of the editor’s job to watch that time line and make sure everything and everybody is in the right place at the right time. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. For inst

Everyone Needs An Editor

Sometimes I wonder how I ever managed to communicate all those years before my kids came along to edit my conversations. There was no one around to keep the record straight and bail me out of the perpetual state of chaos and confusion they were convinced I lived in. "Last Monday, when I went shopping —" "That wasn't Monday, that was Sunday." "Okay, so it was Sunday. Anyway, I bought six Twinkies-- " "No you didn't. You only bought five." “I distinctly remember buying six Twinkies." "That was two weeks ago on Tuesday—" "Okay, stop. I don't really care what day it was. Who ate my Twinkie?" If they truly cared about the state of my mind, they would have realized that my mind was in fairly decent shape before they started messing with it. At least I knew where my Twinkies were. It became a major undertaking for me to carry on a conversation with a friend over coffee, without having one or more of the kid

Choosing the Right Editor

Is the pen mightier than the sword? In some cases, perhaps, but when preparing a manuscript for publication, the pen and the sword form an alliance: the author who pens the work and the editor who wields the sword — trimming, shaping, and sharpening the piece into a work of art. Together they form a powerful team that can sculpt a mediocre manuscript into a masterpiece. Not all editors are equally competent. Neither are all competent editors equally qualified in all genres. Yet, all writers require a good editor . The guidelines below will help match you, the writer, with the right editor. To begin the selection process, ask questions . In what genres does the editor work? How long has he/she been editing? What educational or background experience qualifies the person as a professional editor? How have edited manuscripts been received by agents, publishers, and/or reviewers? Have any edited works won awards or other recognition? Request references . A good editor will be glad to sha

Editors, Editors, and More Editors

Getting an editor to read and polish your manuscript sounds easy enough. Just call (or e-mail) one, agree on price, send your work, and wait for it to come back buffed into a bestseller. If only it were that simple. Before addressing the editor issue, however, you need to know your genre and, by extension, your intended audience. Editors — like doctors, lawyers, and a number of other professionals — specialize. For example, a top-notch mystery editor may be a real dud when it comes to nonfiction. And the ability to hone a romance into a reader’s delight assures neither the editor’s interest nor skills to make science fiction shine. Next, determine what kind of editor will do the best job on your manuscript. Do you need a developmental editor? Content or substantive editor? How about a copy editor? Technical editor? Line editor? Proofreader? More than one of the above? And why so many? Every book contains numerous elements that may need a professional touch. Let’s look at your manu

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Weeding Out Unnecessary Adjectives and Adverbs

It might seem as though we mention overuse of adjectives and adverbs a lot. See Maryann Miller’s posts Adverbs Revisited back in June and Those Pesky Adverbs Again in July. The truth is, we don't need to tell smart, intuitive readers every detail about a character’s appearance or clothing. They’ll fill in the blanks as long as the blanks are not critical to the story. You can describe a minor character (male) as 60ish with long black hair, bronze skin, and a leathery, weathered face, and the reader will know what your American Indian looks like. But if you say he's an Arapahoe elder, won't the reader form a similar mental picture without all the extra words? Similarly, anything from a palace tower room to a battle scene may require description, but pay close attention to what is important to your story and what is not. Keep your eye out for unnecessary repetition—telling the reader the same thing in two or three different ways, using even more adjectives in the proce

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Identifying and Eliminating Your Habit Words

Habit words. That’s what I call them. Some editors lump them into the repetitive word category. Others include them in articles about adjectives and adverbs. I’ve dubbed them habit words because they flow into our writing in the same way they clutter up our speech. The little devils were probably hard-wired into our brains when we were born. Knowing that, let’s accept the truth. Our early drafts will be littered with these throwaways. Our brains (and our keyboards) think the words belong. We might not see them, no matter how many times we go through our manuscripts. Knowing that, how do we identify them, and how do we eliminate them? 1. Enlist the help of your critique group members, your first reader, or, if necessary, an experienced editor or proofreader. Once you’ve identified your habit words, keep a running list. You might occasionally find you’ve adopted a new one. 2. After your big story revisions are complete, and you’re ready to fine-tune your manuscript, open your manu

Tackling the Task of Self-Critiquing

By now you have hopefully begun to develop an objective, and positive, attitude towards your own writing. You're ready to give yourself a critique. This is a valuable self-assessment that will show you whether your work is ready for an editor, or whether it first needs some more work. Start your self-assessment with a straight read through from beginning to end, as if you're reading any other novel - but keep a notebook or computer file open at hand for your notes. Make brief corrections if you spot them, and make quick notes if you think of something to change or check, and also record your thoughts about the plot and characters as you're reading. Most important for your own self esteem is to make a comment whenever you really like something. These points can help later on if you become overly critical. Revising and rewriting After the first reading comes the revision phase. Think about the word "re-vision" in this context: to view again, but also to reassess

Developing a "Critical" Mindset

Yesterday we started looking at self-critiquing and finding the balance between being too harsh a (self) critic and being too lenient. So how do you develop an objective approach to critiquing and editing? First, let's look at what it means to "critique". The words "critical" and "criticism" sometimes have negative connotations, and by extension, so does the word "critique". Some people prefer to use words like "review", "comment", "assess", "appraise", or "report on" when they talk about critiquing, to soften the "criticism" aspect of it. Bear these alternative terms in mind when you look at your own work, as a different word can sometimes alter your perspective a little. Critiquing a manuscript involves a number of aspects, some of which are opposites. These include checking for errors such as spelling, typos, and factual or continuity mistakes; checking for word usage - anythi

How to Critique Your Own Manuscript

Self-critiquing is a very valuable skill to develop. Proofreading your manuscript before sending it to another editor has huge benefits in terms of freeing your editor to work on the content of your manuscript rather than having to spend much of the time allocated correcting your errors. But you also need to be able to judge your own story for continuity, clarity, and quality. However it's also very difficult to think neutrally about something you've written yourself. Many writers fall into one of two groups when re-reading their manuscript: either being too soft on their flaws and thinking everything they've put down on paper is perfect as it is; or being overly critical, sometimes to the point of deleting much of their work in frustration. Finding a balance is important, because there's little point trying to edit your own work if you're not viewing it from a clear and honest perspective. Thankfully, critical reading, even of your own work, can improve with pr

A Litttle Compitition Never Hurts

When I first admitted to my family at large that there was more to the hours I spent at the typewriter than a desire to improve my typing skills, my kids stood in awe of me. “A writer? Really? Like books ‘n stuff?” (I knew if I kept trying, I’d eventually earn their respect.) But over the years, that glow of admiration waned. They were no longer so quick to tell their friends that I’m a writer, and the only time they asked for my autograph was when they needed a detention slip signed. I suspected that they were starting to take me for granted, but that wasn’t the worse part of my fall from fame. They started thinking that anything I could do, they could do better. “If you don’t watch out,” my oldest daughter told me one day, “I’ll write a book about what a rotten mother you are. It might even get published before your book does.” I decided she should enroll in Tact 101 the next year in school. Then my son brought his autobiography home from school and asked me where he should su

Academic Essay 3 - Importance of Body Development and Transitions

An essential component of an essay is its body paragraphs. Without them, you have a great opinion that falls gracelessly to the ground because it lacks support. Body paragraphs (and truly every paragraph in an essay) should be unified, coherent, and well developed. When a paragraph is unified, every sentence in that paragraph supports the essay's thesis. When a paragraph is coherent, every sentence in that paragraph is presented logically and is arranged in a way that provides strong transitional flow, and again, supports the thesis and overall development of the essay. When a paragraph is well-developed, evidence and details are provided as concrete, visual proof that supports your thesis. To have a strong body paragraph that is unified, coherent, and well-developed, you must do four things: Write a topic sentence that illustrates the paragraph’s (or paragraphs') purpose. Supply concrete and specific details and examples to explain generalities and support you

Academic Essays 2 - Importance of Introductions and Conclusions

First impressions can make or break you; the same holds true for your introduction. At the very onset of your essay, you must draw the reader in - into your topic, into your style, and into your purpose (their reason for reading) - in a way that makes them one to continue reading. Some of the weakest introductions start off, "In this essay, I will examine." While some courses might suggest this way of starting an essay or even starting your thesis, it doesn't draw a reader into the piece. We can draw a reader in by... starting with an anecdote. We all love stories - telling and hearing them. If there is an anecdote that ties into your essay's topic, use that to begin your introduction. starting with a quote. I had a student last year who loved quotes, and no matter the essay topic, she had a knack for finding the most perfect quote to start her introductions. If there is a quote that resonates your topic or your opinion of your topic or that sets the tone for th

Academic Essays 1 - Components of an Academic Essay

For the last eight years, I have taught English composition to hundreds of students who range in age from 17 to 67. No student is exempt from having to take it - much to their chagrin. What I want to do in the next several posts is offer mini-lectures that I typically give to my students that first week of school when I talk about what an essay is and how to develop a good one. An essay, in its simplest form, is a paper that does two things: states a purpose and supports that purpose with clear, vivid details and examples. Of course, your mastery of the English language and of style can take those two things and develop an essay that either moves readers into action or does just enough to get you a C. First, an essay must serve a purpose. Traditionally, there are four purposes in essay writing: to inform - very important in academic writing because no matter what class a student takes, he/she will be asked to explain, to illustrate things. to persuade - another important