Author Archives: Suzanne Sherman

It’s Time!

It’s time! The day has come. At last, writers can respectably self-publish our own books. Gone are the days of being at the mercy of publishers about content and book title. The two-year waiting period from publisher’s contract to a place on the shelves is over. And we can earn closer to our due for months or years of hard work instead of being paid $1 a book — the usual royalty.

Freedom!

But with that freedom comes a lot of responsibility. To self-publish a quality book we have to hire an editor, a copy editor and a proofreader. We’re in charge of getting the ISBN and related legalities. We need a professional cover designer for the print book and another for the e-book. The interior needs to be designed and the content uploaded to the several digital formats we’ll use for e-publishing. Then there’s distribution and publicity, advertising, review copies to send out, and more. We’re running a business while we’re getting that next book written; you don’t publish a book then rest on your laurels. Successful authors keep an interested audience satisfied.

I faced these facts when I decided to self-publish my book, “100 Years in the Life of an American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010.” I turned to Kickstarter, a world-famous online platform for crowdfunding creative projects.

My Kickstarter will help me publish this collection of over 50 first-person stories about the life and times by girls under 13 in each of the last 10 decades. This book is the culmination of my almost 20 years of teaching memoir and the recognition of all the potential there is in our stories. The diverse stories in the book come from all around the country and show a fascinating cultural path. It’s the stuff you’ll never find in history books and what life’s all about.

If funding is successful this book will the first published in the “100 Years in the Life” series. Everyone will have a chance to submit their own stories to future books — about the life and times as a teenager, a woman, or a man — illustrating life as it was in every decade from 1910 to 2010.

And that’s one of the challenges of a Kickstarter. The big “if.”

Kickstarter is an all or nothing funding platform, which means I have to meet my goal by June 24 for any pledges to be paid. It’s fund completely or fold.

I hope you’ll check out my short video at Kickstarter and learn all about this amazing collection of first-person stories about a girl’s life through a century and the series it could launch. For the price of a couple double lattes you can be a part of our great story of changing culture.

In advance, I offer my heartfelt thanks.

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Suzanne Sherman is an author, editor, memoir teacher, consultant and blogger. See www.suzannesherman.com for her free newsletter and more.

Characters Are the Heart of a Memoir

BC with DadMemoir is story about people and experiences, both inner and outer. It’s about relationships, connection. And characters — the people in our life stories — are at the heart of it all.

When we know a character, we tend to care more about the story. I see some of my students and clients writing memoir that often suffers from a focus on describing incidents one after another, neglecting the important fact that the reader doesn’t know the characters in the story.

Part of the reason popular memoirs are popular is because the writers of them don’t make those assumptions. They flesh out the people in their memoir so they become as fully dimensional as characters in a novel — or as real as the real people in our lives.

As storyteller, you are the one to give your characters life on the page. If your characters are flat, your writing will be too.

And one of those characters, believe it or not, is YOU. Just because it’s you who’s writing the story doesn’t mean your reader knows you at all of the various ages you’re writing about. When you see yourself as the multidimensional, 3-D character you are, you populate your own story more fully, all of the scenes and the narrative that moves the story forward is infused with you in your many dimensions —your style, your values, your habits, your inconsistencies.

Let’s take a look at how to draw those dimensions.

1) Don’t put someone in front of a mirror and describe what they see. It’s as flat a method of showing someone as the mirror they’re looking into.

2) Don’t list character features: hair color, height, weight, eye color. The details may have a place somewhere, but forget the list. It doesn’t belong in a narrative, it belongs on a driver’s license.

3) Sprinkle in  details here and there that show you and others around you in the time and place you’re writing about.

4) Too much detail can look heavy-handed, overly conscious, make the reader aware of you as a writer instead of feeling like they’re in the story and you’re the invisible guide. You don’t need to put in everything you know and certainly don’t need to do it all at once.

How much is too much? Notice what other writers you like do with this and read over your drafts for too much or not enough. It’s like adjusting the spices when you’re cooking.

In real life we get to know people gradually. Character details reveal themselves over time, whether we know a person for two hours or twenty years. Similarly, characters are best revealed in memoir through progressive scenes, as time passes. And by the details you give about them, their layers unfold and the reader gets to know them more deeply than they would if all the character detail came in a single paragraph.

Mannerisms and habits, personal style and personality-revealing actions show character. When you intersperse these sorts of descriptive details throughout your writing the reader gets to know the characters through her encounters with them. They begin to live on the page. She probably won’t remember from three chapters back that Grandpa had hazel eyes and was balding, but she will remember that he lit a fat cigar after every meal and relit it at least ten times during an hour’s sitting.

Sensory details are helpful too, as they draw us viscerally into a scene and help us  know a character in ways we wouldn’t without them. Kim Chernin did this  beautifully in her memoir, In My Mother’s House: She was a woman who woke early, no matter how late she went to bed the night before. Every morning she would exercise, bending and lifting and touching and stretching, while I sat on the bed watching her with my legs curled up. Then, a cold shower and she would come from it shivering, smelling of rosewater, slapping her arms. She ate toast with cottage cheese, standing up, reading the morning paper. But she would always have too little time to finish her coffee. I would watch her taking quick sips as she stood at the door. “Put a napkin into your lunch,” she’d call out to me, “I forgot the napkin.” And there was always a cup with a lipstick stain standing half full of coffee on the table near the door.

Sign up for my free teleseminar for more about writing three-dimensional character, including tips on how to show yourself as one of them and for some valuable tools you can use: Thursday, March 7, 4 pm PST / 7 pm EST. Go to www.namw.org. If you can’t make the teleseminar Thursday be sure to sign up in advance so you can get the recording of it and listen to it anytime. My website also has lots of good info on writing, so be sure to stop by: www.suzannesherman.com.

Are You Lying By Omission?

It came as a surprise to me years ago to learn that NOT saying something could be considered lying, at least according to my stepmother, whose opinions on things like that mattered when I was in high school. “But I never said I did [fill in the blank]!” I’d protest, when she confronted me about something that could result in my being grounded for the weekend. “That’s right!” she’d say. “You’re lying by omission.” It was a done deal. I was grounded.

Older now and pretty well traveled around the block, I have to defer to the wisdom one of my favorite writers, Russell Baker. “As memoirists,” he wrote, “we are the editor of own life.”

We have to be the editor of our life when it comes to memoir writing. And we’re well practiced.

In storytelling, which we do every day (“This morning I saw…” “Last Saturday I went to…”), we unconsciously choose what to put in and what to leave out. And when we write from life, we do the same. We include what’s needed for the shape of the story. Where does it need to be begin? We dramatize situations by creating scenes, with descriptive, usually sensory details that help listeners feel they are there, in the present time of the story. If we go off on a tangent with related but nonessential information we can lose a listener the same way we can lose a reader by including more than the story needs.

When we’re writing, we’re not lying by leaving out certain parts of a story; we’re making conscious, artful choices. Don’t tell my stepmother I’ve gotten really good at it (!).

So what do you do with this question of lying by omission or wisely and artfully choosing what to leave out for the strength of the story, among other reasons. Are you lying when you don’t tell the whole truth? Is it expected of you as a memoirist?

What to put in and what to leave out has so many facets I’ve decided to tackle it in this blog in small bites and give attention to each one. I’ll look at the tough subject of writing about a living relative, the question of including details of sexual encounters that were especially significant to you, sharing family secrets, revealing truths about yourself for the first time.

If there are other subjects related to writing the truth you’d like to bring up, write it in a comment here or contact me through my website with the question and I’ll be glad to reply or explore it in detail in another blog post.

The bottom line for all truth telling in memoir:

1) Never write with the intention to cause harm (e.g., to get back at someone or shock someone).

2) Consider journaling to flush out and free fiery emotion that deserves a voice but may skew your story or reveal something you’d rather omit. Write it as a piece of memoir once you have more clarity. Include emotions, but don’t use the memoir to vent.

3) Don’t shock with big news about you or a member of the family. If you can, have a conversation with the person or people who could be negatively affected by new information instead of handing them a paper or a book you wrote and letting the story say it for you. The conversation can be a side benefit of writing memoir.

4) Interview yourself when you hit those hard spots instead of relying on your pat response: “I don’t tell that story.” Pause for a few moments while you’re writing. Take a walk or another kind of solitary break and consider the angles. Ask yourself questions like What could the benefit in writing this be? Could anyone be hurt by it? Do I need to protect them from knowing my truth? Is that more important right now than my writing this story/telling my truth? Can I tell the true story without laying out all the painful details; can I summarize, be more general and still be fair to myself and my story?

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Read more on truth telling and good writing tips on my website blog @ www.suzannesherman.com. And for a peek at what’s going on with my new new book about girlhood through a century (“100 Years in the Life of An American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010“) visit the Facebook page for the book @ facebook.com/100yearsinthelife.

100yearsinthelife

Dialects in Dialog

Q: I grew up in Kansas, but my favorite granddad is Texan, and he had a strong accent. A friend read a story of mine recently and liked it but said the dialog seemed contrived. But it was real, it was just like he sounded. How do I give the sense of him without sounding like I’m making it up? The Accent’s Real

A: Dear Real Accent: The trick is to capture the sound of someone. Just like we don’t use all the words someone has said because it would be way more than we need for dialog in memoir (or fiction, for that matter), we need to pick and choose where to drop in an accent. You don’t want to be heavy-handed about it; a sprinkling goes a long way.

Here are some tips for writing realistic dialog that doesn’t slow the read.

At the top of the list: Avoid overuse of phonetic spelling.

Don’t fill in with lots of repeated vowels to give the sound of an accent. Instead, use expressions the speaker would have used and let that reflect their true voice.

Take a look at this example:  “Ahh ain’t goin’ there tennight, noooo way. Doncha git it?”

It’s tedious to read words spelled phonetically, it takes too much effort, especially when dialog has some length. Phonetic spelling will have your readers turning pages and not because they can’t wait to read more. Improved, the sentence above could read: “I ain’t goin’ there tonight, no way. Do you get it?”

Southern accents can be strong with a lot of ending consonants dropped in speech. “It’s hotter’n blazes out there, kids. Ahm goin’ ta stay in heah, you kin bet on that.”  Improved, it could be: “It’s hotter than blazes out there, kids. I’m stayin’ inside, you can bet on that.” Do you hear the accent in the second version? Find the words that carry the voice, and count on your reader for getting a good sense of someone by what they say as well as by their actions in a scene you’re re-creating.

Regional or racial turns of phrase — even cliches — can go a long way in good dialog. “What? You think I’m made of money?” my grandma said, snapping open her pocketbook with a frown I’d seen a thousand times. “Take it, take it. Have a good time for me, that’s all I ask.” Is this a grandmother from Connecticut? Louisiana? Probably not. She sounds like a New Yorker to me, with some roots in Eastern Europe.

And don’t forget, a well known non-English word here or there can add the flavor of a person, too. With that, I’ll say adios.

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Have a question about memoir writing? Email me at suzannesherman@sonic.net. I’ll do my best to help.

And be sure to visit Facebook.com/100yearsinthelife for updates on my new book, “100 Years In the Life of an American Girl: True Stories 1910 – 2010” (publishing spring 2013). All “LIKES” of the Facebook page are appreciated! And the photo contest for the book is coming soon. Ten winners will be published. See my website for more, www.suzannesherman.com.

Get a Writing Buddy!

I met my writing buddy, Susan, one hot July day in 1998 at a weekend conference. We discovered we both are writers and we both work for ourselves, which can be wonderful but can also be a little lacking sometimes for the kind of connection you can get from a workplace. We agreed, too, that we didn’t get as much time as we’d like for our own writing.

And that’s how it started: a year’s commitment to write a thousand words a day five days a week. From Monday through Friday we traded writing prompts every morning by email and we’d write a minimum of a thousand words from that prompt and email it to each other by bedtime. The writing prompts we sent each other were kick-starts, short phrases that sent us in a direction on topics about our lives. Every Friday we’d print the pages the other had written, highlight words and sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs that had especially struck us, and we’d mail off the pack in a manila envelope. I call these kinds of highlights “the yummies.”

What fun it was to see the typed and highlighted pages stack up, but more than that what fun it was opening the daily email from Susan as soon as I was ready to write — often not earlier than 9:00 at night — and letting the words pour out, then clicking “send.”

I had a sense of purpose.

I had a reader I trusted.

I had fresh ideas for writing topics.

I had no reason to have to do anything more than the juicy first write, my favorite part.

And when the full year came to an end, Susan and I wrote a new kind of email to each other. “Do you want to continue?” she asked me. “I can’t imagine giving this up!”

I thought about it, remembered how it was when we’d started, how badly I missed writing like this, writing from the heart, how hungry I was to write that first piece from her prompt: When I am writing…. 

I marveled at how well we knew each other because of all we’d shared in these pages and how we’d only seen each other once since meeting that day in July. I didn’t even know the sound of her voice, but I knew her better than I knew my own sister.

And I also knew it was time to stop.

Since then, Susan and I have become friends in different ways, and writing is always part of the conversation, since it’s part of our lives and who we are. We’ve written a lot, but we’ve never made and kept a commitment to write a thousand words a day except for during that one, good year.

I learned a lot from that year. I discovered it’s wonderful to have a writing buddy. I found out it helps to trade writing prompts and get that fresh topic idea. I experienced the joys of writing in privacy and sharing in confidence. I learned I can make a commitment like that and keep it.

Try it yourself! Get a writing buddy and set a commitment together, one you can both keep. It doesn’t have to be a thousand words that you write each day. It might be 20-minute writing times instead, or at least a half-hour. You don’t have to do it for a full year. You can even be friends with your writing buddy outside of your writing dates! What’s key is coming up with a plan you like and sticking to it for as long as you say you will. The benefits run deep.

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Subscribers to my newsletter get a free downloadable PDF of 200 “jump-off” lines! Visit my website, www.suzannesherman.com, to sign up. And let me know how it goes with your own writing buddy using these prompts and any others. I can’t wait to hear.

Also, STARTING October 15 I’m offering a 4-week one-on-one online program at Story Circle, so check out the class schedule and sign up to get my personalized help with whatever you’re writing. 

Blah, Blah, Blah

Q: How do I avoid a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened,” approach to my memoir and still include all the significant events? — “Blah, Blah, Blah”

A: Dear “Blah, Blah, Blah”:

It’s all in how you shape it.

Think of how we live. This happens and then that happens, and then something else happens. Right? But it’s not a story unless it’s shaped into one. Let’s look at how to shape a story. Here are some writing tips.

1. Beginnings Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. Where do you start a story about an incident or a part of your life? It’s good to start close to the incident or time you’ll cover. You may like to begin in the action of a scene, use a line of dialog to jump into scene and follow it with background/context. Or ask a question. No matter what, your opening line should attract a reader’s interest, not be laden with facts and information. If you think the facts belong up front, still work to keep that first line engaging.

When you read over your first draft, ask yourself these questions: Is the first paragraph a warm-up I used to get in the mood to write? Does the story really start in a later paragraph, not the first one? Is there a great first line buried in the middle of my story? Make the changes you need to make to write an opening that engages a reader and creates the opening shape to the story (or chapter).

2. Focus You should be able to answer the question, “What is this about?”, in a sentence when you get to the end of a short memoir. When you review your first draft, ask yourself that question. Did you start the story close to the point the subject, or focus, of the story begins? Is there a climax, or dramatic height, to the story? If so, did you give it the attention it needs or rush over it? Have you kept to a single well-focused incident (or a few well-focused incidents) or do you go all over the place with tangents that could distract from the focus? Can the tangents be new, separate stories?

3. Feelings Feelings add emotional impact and help a reader know you better. Have you described feelings with dialog, narration, or dramatized actions to convey your feelings and the feelings of other people in your story? Have you told about and shown feelings when it seems right to?

4. Redundancies Redundancies bog down writing. Read your piece over to see if you have you repeated yourself in the same sentence or later in the story. Keep the most effective version and be ready to revise if it’s needed. Sometimes combining what you’ve said about the same thing in two places is perfect in that one right spot!

5. Dialog Dialog brings a story to life. It takes a reader into “real” time (the present time of the story), helps bring a story to life. Dialog also communicates a lot about a person if it conveys how they spoke, what they’d say in a given situation. Check to see if you’ve used dialog. If you haven’t, see if you can illustrate a scene with just a spoken line or two. Dialog should always help move a scene forward; only use words that add something – not everything we say moves a scene. Pick and choose what’s needed. (In real life we can get away with a lot of “blah, blah, blah” but in writing, every word has to matter.) And try to express the speaker’s personality when you can with what they say. Ordinary words like “said” are best for noting the speaker. Avoid adverbs (she said sadly), directing a reader about how to interpret words, use the language in the dialog and actions surrounding the dialog to convey that message instead.

6. Details Sensual details (colors, shapes, smells, sounds, textures) make a story more immediate and real. Details add a sense of veracity that generalities do not: you were there. And sensual details bring the reader in by creating emotional impact. Will the reader “see” your story? Will they “hear” the street sounds outside your window? Have you used precise language, avoided vague adjectives (like “beautiful,” “wonderful,” “nice,” “pretty”)? Can you replace vague adjectives with specific, descriptive ones so the reader can have her own impression? Have you used identifying details (type of flower, drink, cookie, dress, music)? Are there descriptive details — colors, smells, textures, sounds, tastes — you could add without overloading and appearing forced? You want to sound natural while you paint a word picture. If you’ve included smells, have you described them as well as you can? Are there details you could add or some that could be taken out?

7. “Trim the Fat” Are there portions that don’t contribute to the overall impact you want? Do nonessential words slow the reading and lessen the impact of sentences? Refine, refine, refine. It will pay off for you and all of your readers.

8. Ending Does your story drop off suddenly and unintentionally? It should not. Does it summarize what you’ve just written about? This would be another form of redundancy. Does it reveal an epiphany or a deepened understanding of something or someone that happened because of the incident described in the story? Reflection is essential in memoir. Give your story a clear and compelling finish. It’s as important to leave a reader feeling interested and satisfied as it is to appeal to a reader’s curiosity at the start.

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Do you have a question about writing memoir? Send it to me in a COMMENT to the blog post, or email me at suzannesherman@sonic.net.

There’s more about writing and memoir at www.suzannesherman.com, so be sure to visit me there and sign up for my newsletter for writing tips and info on submissions to my upcoming book, “100 Years In the Life of a Girl: True Stories of American Girls 1910 – 2010.” Contributions will be accepted soon for the next in the series, “100 Years In the Life of a Teenaged Girl 1910 – 2010.” And I’m offering two consecutive one-on-one programs at Story Circle Network, so check out the SCN September class schedule and sign up to get my personalized help with whatever you’re writing.

More Than Inspiration

Writing the stories of your life doesn’t happen in a day. It takes more than inspiration, writing when the urge strikes. It takes time and dedication. It wants the details that lift the story off the page, that take a reader there along with you, that share you with them and show where you’ve been and how it was. Memoir asks for reflection, and it also likes the pacing there is in life — times of suspense, the build ups and let downs. You get to choose what to put in and what to leave out.

When people start my memoir classes they usually have an idea of what they want to write about. But before long they get a much clearer idea of it, or they change their mind completely. Last month I blogged about Sharon Porter Moxley’s recently self-published memoir, Among the Silent Giants: A Young Girl’s True Adventures and Survival in a Wild Country.

When Sharon joined my class in 2005 she planned to write about her partner’s family history in Hungary during World War II. They were Jews in hiding. They survived. They lost their home, relatives, dear friends. An interesting story! Much more interesting than her own! But when Sharon wrote a story about living in the rugged backwoods of Northern California in the late 1940s, when she was nine years old, everyone was riveted. She wrote another story, this one about trying to train chipmunks to sit on her shoulder. Before she knew it, she couldn’t stop writing. Seven years later — seven years — her book is published, has won an award and is selling well, she has a local bookstore reading in October, she’s learning social media fast, and she’s flying high, enjoying seeing that people are eager to read about her life. (And it’s a really good read!)

I think taking the time to devote yourself to writing the stories of your life is one of the greatest gifts you can give. It can’t be rushed through. Discovery happens over time. New ideas come, new directions are taken. And when you finish the patches of this great quilt and you stitch them together into one great weaving, you have something solid to hold in your hand and share with others.

CreateSpace.com, Amazon’s publishing company, makes this easy now, at prices much lower than it costs to make copies of your 200-page book and have it bound at a copy shop. (This is if you don’t need to hire their editorial or design packages.) In a sense, they become your printer, but they’re also so much more. You can share your book with anyone anywhere simply by giving them the title or telling them to search your name on Amazon. You set the cover price, the sale is made, CreateSpace prints the book and Amazon ships it out. And there are other self-publishing companies available, many of them excellent and all discoverable online.

I look forward to the day when a full shelf of my bookcase is filled with copies of self-published memoirs by women who got inspired and stayed with it, who found their voice through writing and discovered what they wanted to say. Maybe your memoir will be one of them.

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There’s more about writing and memoir at http://www.suzannesherman.com, so be sure to visit me there and sign up for my newsletter for writing tips and info on contributing to my upcoming book, “100 Years In the Life of a Girl: True Stories of American Girlhood 1910 – 2010.” Contributions will be accepted soon for the next in the series, “100 Years In the Life of a Teenaged Girl 1910 – 2010.” And STARTING SEPTEMBER 17 I’m offering two consecutive one-on-one program at Story Circle Network, so check out the SCN September class schedule  and sign up to get my personalized help with whatever you’re writing.