Thursday, 29 January 2015

Learning to Write a Memoir

There's a summary of tips at the end of this blog.

Last year I enjoyed two gratifying writing experiences.  I won a place to meet a literary agent through a conference hosted by Writing East Midlands.

I was also long listed for the Mslexia memoir competition 2014.

I contacted Bridgett Holding a tutor at Swanwick Writer's Summer School, and paid for a full read-through and feedback.  It was worth every penny. The things I learned from Bridget included:

·     Avoid unnecessary use of multiple level back-story. Some back-story will be inevitable, but it's best limited to one time period only.

Example; I feel elated.  Why do I feel elated?  Because this afternoon I took my first bungee jump, that's why. I was terrified as I stood there on the bridge, the safety harness tight around my middle.  I'm sure everyone could hear my teeth chattering in terror.

This is standard diary style.  You are in one place, remembering events that took place earlier.  Problems arise when, in the middle of remembering events, you have an earlier memory.  This will lead to reader confusion.

Example; I feel elated. Why do I feel elated?  Because this afternoon I took my first bungee jump.  I was terrified as I stood there on the bridge, the safety harness tight around my middle. 
The first time I took a bungee jump was when I was forty years old.  Blaa blaa, memory of the previous jump.

·     One way round the back-story problem is to start with an adrenaline-packed prologue and then begin chapter 1 in normal chronological order.

·     Any memories you do include must be relevant to the story. Watch out for details that are only there to please a much loved aunt/friend/hamster.

While I was doing major rewrite number three, I came across the Mslexia competition.  First prize: lots of money and a book deal.  Oh yes.

Surely there was no point in entering my memoir at this stage of its development, especially bearing in mind the huge entrance feet of £25?  Never known to be risk averse, I entered anyway.

When I got the e-mail from Mslexia, I assumed it was one of those 'that was interesting but...' reactions.  Then I noticed the word congratulations in the first few words.  I stopped breathing.  Then I hooted with delight.  I'd been long-listed.

A month later I found out that I had not been short-listed because the editor wasn't sure which of the many themes in my memoir was meant to be the main one. 

·     It doesn't matter how many threads a memoir contains, it must have one major theme.  That theme must run through the story like the writing in a stick of rock. 

Ultimately when you write a memoir, it is not about you, the author.  It is about the reader.  He or she needs to be able to relate to the emotional/psychological/spiritual/physical journey of the author.  The more universal your theme, the more the reader will be able to identify with the story and the more satisfied they will be.  A satisfied reader leads to a successful author.

I'd always wanted my memoir to be written in diary style.  I like the refreshing sense of immediacy, but there’s a fundamental limitation to diary style.  It must be possible for the author to be in a position where they can write.  Since my memoir took place in 1989 on a desert island, my technology of choice was a notebook and pen.  There is no realistic way I could write about swimming alongside hammerhead sharks.  (I didn't actually meet a hammerhead shark but I did have reef shark almost brush against my knees).  The only way to talk about this kind of thing is to do it in a reflective style after the event.

So, I decided to go for the non-diary style (I'm also dairy free - which is another story).
Now my character has the freedom to write anywhere, at any time. I'm now embarking on a major rewrite number four. 

·     Think about chronology.  Avoid overlapping, multiple layers of memory.
·     Memories must be relevant.  
·     Diary style is immediate, and exciting, but can constrain the style.  A writer can only write what is happening or has happened when she or he has pen and paper or technology of choice to hand - not while they are in the middle of a bungee jump.
·     Non-diary style allows the writer to describe a bungee jump at any point in the action.  We can be with her as she plummets to the river, feeling the harness going alarmingly loose before suddenly gripping at the base of the jump without having an unconscious anxiety about where her notebook is.
·     Memoirs are not an excuse for personal indulgence.  Well, okay they can be if you don't intend to publish.  Of course you can write what you like and thoroughly enjoy yourself, however agents are looking for universal themes.  They want memoirs that allow reader identification.
·     One theme must stand out and run through the whole story.  There can be many other threads, but they must all play a minor role compared to the main theme.