January 29, 2015

Boring or Brilliant?

BoredThe cliché of watching someone else’s home movies has always been “It’s always just a saddening bore.” What’s surprising is that the farther we find ourselves removed in time and place, the more these old films have the capacity to move us, to entertain us, or simply to remind us of life as it once was.

From My Private Italy, Steve McCurdy

Ask around and you’re bound to hear this sentiment about boredom expressed with regard to reading life stories written by “ordinary” people, especially strangers. You even hear it expressed by people about their own stories: “My life is so ordinary. Nobody would be interested enough to read it.”

Hold the phone! Notice that McCurdy goes on to state that with time and distance things change. He went on to explain that old home videos have become hot properties now selling to strangers for premium prices on eBay. Various organizations are building archives for documentary purposes.

The same thing can happen with life stories. Some memories or stories, especially though without compelling drama or even a plot, may seem boring today, but brilliant fifty years from now. Ideally you will find a way to add drama and interest to any story, but don’t be deterred if all you can do is describe how you did things.

In fifty years, people are likely to be fascinated with how things were done “back in the olden days." For example, children today may be blown away to read simple descriptions of how kids amused themselves in the 1950s with no computers, video games, or cell phones, limited TV, and freedom to roam. Accounts of using a standard manual typewriter may sound as arcane as whittling quill pens out of goose feathers. Given the current pace of change, by 2050, what seems cutting edge today may have been supplanted by something far more advanced and they’ll wonder how we got along.

So, you see, even stories that are primarily documentary and lacking drama are worth writing, if only for the fun of remembering and creating a legacy of family history. Let McCurdy’s observations guide your purpose and path as you plan how to approach this adventure, or where to go next if you’ve already begun. Who knows? Your descendants could make a mint selling the collection of stories you couldn’t get anyone to read today.

Write now: Write a simple documentary story about some area of your daily life that has changed dramatically over time, for example how you helped hang laundry on the clothesline before you or your family had a clothes dryer, or how your family spent Sunday evenings playing canasta in the days before TV. Include details of how you did things and add reflections on differences between then and now if you wish.

Image credit: Jose Izquierdo, Creative Commons license

January 22, 2015

Writing About Friends

FriendsSooner or later most of us want to write stories about people who are or were special to us. These stories may be free-standing tributes, or you may include friends as characters in memoir stories. Some such stories work better than others. In fact, as much as I hate to say this, some can be downright boring, the exact opposite of what we intend. The boring stories are generally limited to an account of things you did together, which makes the story more about your experience than the friend.

While it’s perfectly fine to write about shared experiences, it takes more to define a relationship. Use these tips to write glowing tributes that will help readers love your friends as much as you do.

Give examples of what makes the person special to you.
If you say only that “Joan was a wonderful friend,” we have no idea what that means. Tell us what Joan did that set her apart, how she went above and beyond. Did she have a special sense of humor that always lifted your spirits? Was she one of those people who always shows up with chicken soup when someone is sick?

Season with feelings.
Embed reports of how you feel about this person, what emotions he or she evokes. Use specific actions or conversations to give context to these reports.

Add some action.
Yes, this is another way of saying, “Show, don’t tell.”

Include some quirks.
Make your friend real with quirks that set her apart. Does she laugh too loud? Compulsively rearrange a dishwasher after someone else loads it? Is his desk a disaster?

Dramatize with dialogue.
Dialogue is one area of writing where clichés and jargon are welcome, in moderation. Let the way your friend speaks add color to your portrait.

Seek input from others.
When you write about people dear to you, you become immersed in a holographic memory of events, experiences, and the reality of that person. You may not realize that you’ve left out key details like what the person looks like and similar things.

Make preliminary notes.
While it often works well to simply start writing, for a special tribute planning can help. Use a pen and paper to jot down a few thoughts as you pause to ponder

  • What does this person mean to you?
  • How does she make you feel?
  • What does she do to make you feel this way?
  • What is sets this person apart and makes him special, in general and to you in particular.
  • What do you want the reader to understand about this person?

Crystalize your answers into terse statements. For example for “How does she make you feel?” you may write, “treasured, valued, understood.” When you draft your final story, include the thoughts you’ve uncovered this way to make your story glow with heart-warming energy.

Write now: write a short tribute to a special friend or someone who has been helpful and inspiring to you. Use the points above to flesh it out. Then send a copy to your friend.

Image credit: Stu Seeger. Cropped image shared under Creative Commons license.

January 10, 2015

Jumpstart a Personal Timeline

Dates,-lgJanuary is a great time to begin or update a personal timeline. If you are serious about lifestories or memoir, a timeline is invaluable for recalling story-worthy events and keeping your thread untangled. I have good news: a free download to simplify the process of starting or enhancing yours. Read on.

On February 24, 2006, I published “The Value of a Personal Timeline” as my  ninth post on this blog I began that month. The material in that post has stood the test of time. It explains the basics of why you need one and how to get started. Rather than repeat what I said in that post, I refer you back to it.

I wrote the post while still working on the original draft of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, and had not completed the section on timelines. In the finished book, I include considerable detail about the technical aspects of creating and customizing a timeline. This graphic shows how something as simple as changing the font gives a dry document a more human feel.

H&C Timeline

You could make your own table from scratch, as I describe in the earlier post. But there’s an easier way. I just finished updating two basic Personal Timeline templates. Both are published in the Word 2003 .doc format and work equally well in later versions of Word or other programs that accept .doc files.

One is for filling out on your computer; the other has larger table cells to print and fill out on paper. Both come with the year column already numbered from 1910 through this year, and the numbering will continue as you add years in the future. I include instructions for deleting unwanted years at the top, and other helpful tips.

To download, click on the Free Stuff tab at the top of the page and scroll down to the timelines. No registration is required, and no hidden nasties lurk within. Consider them my gift to you to celebrate a new year. Enjoy!

Write now: read the earlier post, then download that timeline (and anything else that appeals to you) and get busy filling it out. If you don’t already have a copy of The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, order one now to find more detail on timelines and other tips.

January 01, 2015

New Years Resolutions

2015-Writing-Resolutions

Happy New Year!

I spent considerable time crafting general writing resolutions (in no particular order) that I feel able to keep, but will also push me a bit. I invite you to shamelessly steal any or all that appeal to you.

Some of my underlying thoughts:

PRIMARY INTENTION: I want the concept of lighting a candle in the darkness to underlie everything I write. This is the first year I’ve stated a primary intention. It feels right write.

Write what I want when I am ready. The emphasis here is on when. 2015 promises to be a challenging year of transition, and more than ever, I shall follow whatever schedule works, for writing in general and for writing blog posts. You may see large gaps this year, but no problem. I don’t flatter myself that you can’t face a week without reading a post from me.

Take as long as it takes to write it right. I’ve seen too many people make themselves crazy and produce less than their best work because they set an unrealistic deadline to publish, whether for the public or private distribution. I have that t-shirt in my drawer. Honor your writing and don’t do this to yourself.

Write something every day. No, grocery lists do not count, but a carefully crafted email with more than a paragraph does. Speaking of which, email is a good chance to practice being articulate and organized in presenting your thoughts. While it’s true that urgency may rule at times, take care that you’ve made yourself clear and fix egregious errors, especially those introduced by autocorrect.

Play with words. I’ve written so much about this. Write yourself out of your rut. Constantly think of new and fun ways to express yourself. This resolution links to Write it colorful and considering every angle.

Gorge on rich reading. Let everything you read serve as a self-directed writing workshop. Read once for the story and review to explore structure behind the magic. Make notes to nail those insights, then review the book, for your benefit as well as the author’s.

Share lots of stories informally. Gather a group of people who appreciate your writing and send stories around. Encourage their comments, good, bad and indifferent. You’ll learn a lot and they’ll enjoy the reads. Don’t limit yourself to just writers. All readers count.

Write it real. This thought goes beyond sticking to the facts. I’m reminding myself to include sensory detail, character quirks, self-talk, and those other elements that breathe life into scenes, real or imagined.

Check everything five times. This advice goes beyond checking spelling and grammar. My inbox overflows with emails describing sign bloopers, i.e. “Persons are prevented from picking flowers from any but their own graves.”

 Consider every angle. This advice is especially helpful for lifestory writers. You may be amazed when you consider how others may have viewed a situation or why they may have done what they did. These insights can be life changers.

Sign your name! to cement ownership and intention.

I wish for you a year filled with gratifying results from your writing, whenever, however you do it, with whomever you share.

Write now: make your own list of writing resolutions if you haven’t yet done so. I strongly urge you to do this on paper – pixels are okay if you use a stylus as I did. I’m partial to the Papyrus android app for such projects, partly because my markers have dried up and I like to use lots of color. The idea is to involve brain centers and muscles that add personal value to the writing process.

December 18, 2014

Pros and Cons of Disclosure

     “Gideon, how are you? I’ve been worrying about you.”
     “Worrying? Why?”
     “Because you–I don’t know, you always get into… adventures that never happen to anyone else. There isn’t anything wrong, is there?”
     “Wrong?” He laughed. “No, of course not.” What was a bomb in the morning mail to the truly adventurous? Besides, why bring it up now when it couldn’t serve any purpose other than to worry her? Later was good enough. If there was going to be any comforting and soothing as a result, he didn’t see why he shouldn’t be there in person for the benefits. “Not that things haven’t been exciting,” he said. “Let’s see, when did we talk last?”

In this short passage from Aaron Elkin’s fourth Gideon Oliver mystery, Old Bones, Gideon Oliver makes a decision not to worry his wife with full disclosure of all details about the perilous adventure he’s become embroiled in while lecturing at a conference in France. His choice to tell or not tell is little different from decisions life writers often face.

Few topics are more passionately discussed than boundaries around what you include in shared stories. Some taut the benefits of disclosure. Joshua Becker tackles this topic on his Becoming Minimalist blog in “Stories We Don’t Tell.” Both sides of the issue are explored in a long list of follow-up comments.

Leah McClellan puts a different spin on the matter in her Simple Writing post, “5 tips for personal stories in blog posts.” Don’t be put off by her focus on blog posts. The factors she explores apply to any lifestory.

As you read these posts, should you choose to do so, and as you make decisions for written disclosures of your own, keep this principle in mind:

Words once read can never be erased.

Factors to consider include

Shocking disclosures forever change relationships. You may get past things, but the knowledge is always there, always a filter, for better (that is possible) or worse. Shocking disclosures can explode in ways you never expected, even years after the fact.

Perspectives may change over time. Anger today, even if the incident occurred a dozen years ago, may look different in another few years. You may eventually want to write the story of how your thoughts and attitude evolved.

Unanticipated fallout for others. Few actions happen in a vacuum. Your disclosures are likely to have impact on one or more other lives. Yes, it’s your story, and you have the right to have your say. Are you willing to perhaps break up someone else’s marriage, create problems for them at work, or start a (another?) war in your family?

Shining light on secrets to bring truth to bear is powerful and healing. But shining bright light directly into the eyes of others may exact a higher price than you realize. Go ahead and write those stories of pain, guilt and trauma. Then use Byron Katie’s tools from The Work to dig more deeply and explore alternate perspectives for insight and transformation. Rewrite your story and share with a trusted friend or adviser before deciding who else should see it and what factors might be involved.

Write now: Write about an old or current resentment and its roots. Use The Work to turn it around. Use this new story to spread love, peace and forgiveness in this season of love and joy.

December 12, 2014

Kumi What?

Kumihimo is a Japanese form of braid-making. Cords and ribbons are made by interlacing strands. Kumi himo is Japanese for "gathered threads".Wikipedia.

I first learned of kumihimo when I stopped to visit a craft-klatch group that met each morning in a lounge on the ship while I was crossing the Atlantic last month. I had no idea at the time that those few minutes started me on a loop leading to deeper insight into writing and creativity in general.

One woman in that group held a circular foam disk with strings of beads hanging around it and a thick beaded cord emerging below from a hole in the center. As she methodically moved strands back and forth across the disk, the cord grew longer. I was fascinated. I want to do this! It looks so simple!

As soon as I got home, I plunged into a sea of YouTube tutorials and was instantly hooked. I made a disk from a stray scrap of foam board, snipped off eight lengths of red cord, and began braiding. Sure enough, basic kumihimo is simple. My first project was a cord to replace the tacky ribbon holding a beautiful glass pendant I bought from a street vendor in Rome. Then I returned to YouTube for further inspiration.

YouTube videos are mental popcorn. Sidebar suggestions are addictive, and so is creative action. One video led to another, from Kumihimo projects to soda straw weaving, to paper tube baskets, to paper beads, to hammered wire craft.... Oh my! So many beautiful things to make! That mental popcorn was exploding. Where should I start? Transform worn storage boxes with fake forged metal finish? Braid another necklace? Make paper beads? Dig out denim scraps for a jacket? Maybe stop and clean house? I was paralyzed by possibility.

After a good night’s sleep, I realized that I’d gotten more than project ideas from those hours on YouTube. I picked up new understanding and skills. They showed me how I could decorated those aging storage boxes more durably. I didn’t know to base coat the cardboard. I didn’t know about using old credit cards to spread glue smoothly or about sealers for the paper I used. When I do tackle those new projects, I’ll be better prepared.

In the dawn’s early light I realized that creativity knows no bounds, and changing channels can recharge energy all around. After switching from writing to creative channels with more physical involvement and nonverbal imagery, I see writing with fresh eyes. I see a connection between the tutorials I just binged on and all the writing-related blogs posts and books I’ve read, podcasts I’ve listened to and classes I’ve taken. Just as I discovered new ways to braid and make jewelry, use the tools I already have, durably decorate boxes and more crafty tips, over time I’ve accumulated piles of writing tools and learned to use them.

Now I see that my YouTube journey into crafting has been a perfect sidetrack, jolting me out of mental ruts, exposing me to new ideas, and showing me new skills and tools. Best of all, these videos reminded me of a part of The Story of Me I’ve neglected and miss. Last post I suggested we all make Happiness lists. I’d forgotten how happy I feel when I’m making things. Finally, it all circles back to writing. This post is a trip journal of sorts, adding more depth and meaning to my crafty discoveries.

Write now: If you are distracted this month with holiday preparations, relax into them. Savor them. Enjoy the season. Make a few notes and process it all on the page in a few weeks. Hopefully you too will find fresh perspectives and inspiration. If you have time, do something unusual and creative. Bake Christmas cookies. Make a couple of gifts or decorations. Let this creativity fuel your writing later.

November 22, 2014

What Makes YOU Happy?

happy-stick-girlThis question, “What makes you happy?” is so simple, but who ever stops to consider it? I hope you will, as I have been doing the last couple of days. It could change your life.

I found this question in the draft of a book I’m beta-reading for a friend. The book will soon be published, and you’ll learn more about it before long. Meanwhile, although answers to this happiness  question could easily fill a book, my initial list has helped me find a focus to reboot this blog.

Let’s take a look at my list. In addition to obvious things like laughing with family and friends, blowing dandelion fluff, piles of freshly washed and folded clothing, having someone else fix my breakfast and that sort of thing, I listed

  • meaningful connection with people who share my interests and values
  • discovering something wonderful
  • sharing wonderful discoveries with those who will appreciate them
  • the satisfaction of polishing a piece of writing – or doing any job well
  • reading masterful writing
  • playfulness in writing and life
  • writing true to myself and my voice

No real surprise here. Involvement in the global writing community makes ME happy! For over sixteen years I’ve been studying and practicing different aspects of life writing and sharing what I’ve learned with others in classes, writing groups and privately. I love that!

But as with other things, it’s easy to go along with the crowd, to be swept up in trends, to keep telling people what you think they want to hear. It’s easy to stick with the same old same old, the tried and true, to say and write what others are saying and writing.

That’s a recipe for burnout.

Recognizing that I was drifting into serious burnout with writing and teaching, I’ve taken an extended break. For a month I didn’t even write email. My husband and I flew to Rome for a few days before boarding the Celebrity Silhouette cruise ship to loop around the Mediterranean for two weeks. We visited Malta, the Greek island of Kephalos, Ashdod (nearest port to Jerusalem), Haifa, Ephesus in Turkey, Athens, Sicily and Naples before returning to Rome. We stayed on the ship for two more weeks, visiting Toulon in Provence, the Spanish island of Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Tenerife in the Canary Islands before heading across the Atlantic to Ft. Lauderdale.

We had a great time with without email and Internet for a month, opting for digital detox. I took this one step further and wrote nothing other than a few trip notes. I did read. Between constant Trivia games I read mysteries and memoir and most of a book about writing. But I didn’t write.

By the end of the month I felt alone in a crowd of 3500 people. I met dozens of interesting people, but no writers. Nobody I met gave a hoot about writing, and few even read. Only one was more than marginally digitally literate. I felt like I was on the wrong planet.

Compiling that list of things that make me happy has brought me home to my keyboard, refreshed and ready to write. In playful new ways. With new focus. I’ll fill you in more on that focus in future posts.

Write now: pull out a piece of paper – the back of an envelope or piece of junk mail will do. Make a list of things that make YOU happy. Aim for 100. Hang onto this list. We’ll work with it more later. When you finish, pick one simple thing from the list and do it. Then do a quick Happy Dance.

October 13, 2014

On Hiatus, Part 2

Break timeI’m touched by the outpouring of people who contacted me yesterday after reading that terse notice that I’m taking a break from blogging. Thank you for your concern, my friends! I’m deeply touched to realize the extent of the cyber community that has developed among those of us writing our lives.

But never fear. All is well. It’s just time to formalize the break that had already begun with  no plan. It’s time to reevaluate the purpose of this blog and what I want to achieve. A month or more offline will be digital detox to restore clear vision and balance.

A primary focus for me has always been to pay back the pot for all the golden information others shared with me, and to provide help and encouragement for those who lack the resources for high admission events. If people buy my books as a result, so much the better!

The blogosphere and memoir community have grown and evolved over the nearly nine years since I began this blog, and so have my interests, perspectives and skills. When I began, the few websites available were mostly bait to get people to sign up for expensive classes and services. Sites like that still flourish, but there’s plenty of free fodder to graze on – more than anyone can possibly keep up with.

A secondary aim has been to encourage those who write for personal growth and to create a legacy of family history. Publishing is great. Fame and fortune are great. The web is full of advice – good, bad and indifferent – on how to polish and promote your product to make that happen. I hope to keep people aware that unpolished, unpublished pebbles are also worthy of respect.

I admit that I’ve neared burnout on social media and my passion for posting has cooled. But embers till glow. I do expect to be back, refreshed, reconnected with passion, full of new ideas.

Perhaps the greatest compliment I’ve ever received is “You make me think!” I hear that enough often enough, from a broad enough base, to realize that may be my greatest skill and primary value. I feel on the threshold of Big Thoughts myself. Writing will help crack that shell. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, for poignant memoir writing tips similar to things I post, please visit Elizabeth-Anne Kim’s inspired and compassionate blog, Lives In Letters. Elizabeth is a local writing friend, a generation younger than I. I’m a huge fan of her fresh insights and amazed at the depth of her knowledge. She’s living proof to me that wisdom knows no boundaries of age, and she fuels my hope for the future.

I invite you to join me for in digital detox if you’re flaming out, and write on, as I shall always do.

September 11, 2014

Tips for Dealing with Details

eyeball-bulge

Several pages into a highly recommended memoir, a factual error popped my eyeballs nearly out of my head. Can you find the mistake?

In September 1963, the Cuban and Russian governments placed
          nuclear bombs in Cuba.
In October 1963, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended….
In November 1963, John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In December 1963, I was born….

The Cuban Crisis was in 1962! Both that event and the JFK assassination are indelibly burned into my memory. The author can’t remember, I thought, but how could something this obvious slip by the editing involved in a traditionally published book? I checked Wikipedia to be absolutely sure, then kept reading. Along the way, I found half a dozen typos, and by the time I finished, I’d found several loose ends in the story along with an apparent contradiction.

But still, I do appreciate the book and its many strengths. The story is powerful and the author’s voice superb. I understand the book’s appeal. The mess saddens me on the author’s behalf.

In one sense I felt vindicated that such casual editing was released by an established publisher when self-published authors are widely slammed for flooding the market with slop. But the point is to write your personal best, not to meet standards.

Whether you are writing a few stories for family or a major opus for the world, these guidelines will help you smooth wrinkles in your stories.

Check your facts. Always validate times, dates or places, if you’re sure you know. Those erroneous dates for the Cuban crisis may be accepted as factual reality by younger readers. Your error about a birthplace or date could throw genealogists into a tizzy years down the road.

Look for loose ends. They may be subtle. For example, this author doesn’t mention how she generated income, but despite a divorce, she spent money like it grows on trees. She says she remarried. To the man she had the amazing relationship with?

Look for conflicts. She reports reflections of someone with her son’s name who met a celebrity she was about to meet. It makes no sense that her young son would have met this person before she did, or that he would relate such a mature impression. Ebooks make searching easy. No other person with that name was mentioned at any other time. Confusing!

Look for missing information. She cites results of certain studies with assurance. The topic is new to me and I’d like to read more. I don’t need footnotes, but I’d love to see an appendix with references and suggested reading.

Rely on beta readers. You aren’t likely to notice loose ends or missing information, because you fill in the blanks from memory as you read. Even family members may gloss over omissions like these. Discerning readers who aren’t privy to the backstory will pick them up in a flash.

Don’t rely too heavily on professional editors. I don’t know what shape this manuscript was in when it arrived on the editor’s desk. Perhaps she did as much as she was able in the time allotted to meet deadline or budget. Maybe loose ends fly under her radar. If you are paying for editing, remember that more time means more money, so have things in the best shape you can before you seek help. Professional or not, nobody is perfect, and any given reader will fail to notice something. Have two or three more people read for further edits and errors after the formal edit is done.

Be gentle with yourself. Readers love this book in spite of its flaws. Write great stories, give them your best shot, and then chill. If you pour your heart into them, readers view mistakes with compassion – if they notice them at all. Many won’t.

Write now: if you don’t already have a writing group or a list of trusted beta readers, find or start a group and begin a search among friends, local or online, who can read pre-release versions and give you reliable feedback.

September 01, 2014

Accentuate the Positive


Ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive
E-lim-inate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don't mess with Mr. Inbetween.

Who doesn't recognize the value of this sage advice from the 1945 hit sung by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters? But you may not realize the power of this advice for your writing when applied at the micro-level of sentences. I'm not talking here about avoiding negative topics. I'm talking about the value of rephrasing sentences from negative statements to positive.

One of the most compelling examples of this is found in an online article, Kurdish Female Warriors On the Front Lines Fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The lead paragraph states:

A notoriously fierce segment of the Kurdish security forces are striking terror into the hearts of ISIS terrorists – female fighters. The Jihadists have no problem slaughtering defenseless women but they don't like facing armed female warriors in battle – because they don't believe they'll go to heaven if they're killed by one of them.

In actual fact, those Jihadists DO believe they WON’T go to heaven if…

These tips will help you avoid false negatives.

Tell what IS rather than what ISN'T

Instead of writing "It wasn't raining that day," tell the reader, "The rain finally stopped" or "Dry weather that day allowed us to ..." or "My heart soared when I looked out the window that morning and saw patches of blue in the sky."

Do you see what's happening here? That negative statement implies a lot of things, but swinging it around to a positive, affirmative statement avoids a slightly onerous or whiney tone and creates space for discussing advantages and opportunities. Let's look at a few more examples of reversal:

Edward was not tall.Edward was of average height, able to disappear in a crowd.
The meeting was not marred by any discord.Discord was averted and the meeting ran smoothly.
Every time I worked overtime it didn’t show up in my paycheck.None of the times I worked overtime showed up in my paycheck.

Use precision wording

The paragraph about Jihadists is a prime example of imprecise wording. So is “all men are not tall” as cited in an earlier post, Brain Thorns. Examine each negative statement to be sure that is exactly what you intend to say.

View negative statements as opportunities to enhance the message

Rewording the description of Edward gives a better sense of his appearance, and the paycheck statement is awkwardly stated in several regards. The revision shifts the negative aspect to the subject, using a positive verb. The revised sentence flows smoothly, and the meaning is more clear.

Use negative statements sparingly for emphasis

Strongly worded negative statements have tremendous impact. George Washington’s purported statement, “I cannot tell a lie,” would not made history books if he’d said, “I must tell the truth.” How else could you state “The eyes don’t lie” without changing the meaning?

The paycheck statement is inherently negative and must be so for precise meaning. The obvious intent is to emphasize the inequitable situation. Revising yet again to state “Not a single one of the times I worked overtime ever showed up in my paycheck” adds additional emphasis and impact.

So, you see, by paying to detail, you can convey an upbeat, finely tuned, high impact message without sounding like Pollyanna. Consider every sentence and explore ways to ensure precise meaning and smooth flow. Trust me, smoothing sentences gets easier with practice.

Write now: Search several old stories in your collection and look for negative statements that would benefit from flipping or rewording.

August 25, 2014

Five Powerhouse P's for Your Memoir Opening

Hot-ParagraphEveryone knows that the first paragraph of a story is the most important and often determines whether a reader will continue or set the story aside. Follow tips in this guest post from Matilda Butler to learn how to gain instant reader connection with a hot opening paragraph. Read the tips, then put them into practice by entering the “First Paragraph” Contest described below the tips.

Don’t dawdle about the contest. Entries are due by midnight PDT September 3. It’s only a few words, so you can do it! If you are already nodding your head, then here's the link to the contest rules http://bit.ly/URBTFh

Still Working on Your Opening and Want Suggestions?

In my previous life as president of a small high tech company, we regularly set our goals around the 4 P's of marketing (Product, Place, Price, Promotion). In my current life as writer and writing coach, I've spent an inordinate amount of energy focused on opening sentences and opening paragraphs. A few years ago, I even did a series called Opening Salvos and a second one called Memoir Moments with both delving into effective openings. This led me to develop 5 P's of openings (People, Place, Plot Problem, Persuasion, Prose).

What's the big deal? The opening paragraph is just a paragraph. Your book will have many paragraphs but it is the first one that will probably determine if a reader stays around long enough to see all those other paragraphs you've carefully constructed.

Let me share five P's that will move you toward a powerful opening:

#1. People: There are two groups of people to consider for your first paragraph --audience and characters in your story. Picture your audience, a reader or even a room full of readers. Who are they? Why would they be interested in your story? What needs do they have that your book meets? How can you engage them emotionally in your story?

Once you have thought through your audience, see if one or two characters in your story can be introduced in the opening paragraph in a way to engage that audience you've just spent time understanding. How will you introduce your character? With dialogue? With descriptive detail? Does your reader begin to ask himself or herself questions about your character, to interact with your story? If so, then you have a strong first paragraph and you've hooked your reader.

Remember, the first paragraph is when you begin the relationship between you, your story, and your audience.

#2. Place: People don't float around. They are anchored by place and time. Readers are willing to be lost in a fog, but not for long. They want to know the context around your story and two important elements are place and time. There are many ways to work place and its correlate time into your paragraph without blatantly stating them. You might mention:

"...glistening snow on the Grand Tetons..."

"The usually benign trade winds were bringing the Big Island trouble this time..."

"Three new airports had been built in Singapore since my previous visit in 1966. But it wasn't aviation concerns that brought me back."

Of course, sometimes it is fast and efficient to put place and perhaps time on the line before the first paragraph where it might serve as a foreshadowing or connection with history:

Dallas, November 22, 1963

Oklahoma City, September 11, 2001

or merely a locator so that the reader can fill in details that you won't have to write:

Summer, 1942

New Orleans

#3. Plot Problem: Your plot, the cause and effect events of your story, will be revealed over the length of your book. But the opening paragraph can begin to hint at the plot or more specifically the problem that drives your story. What is your story about? Try to foreshadow your plot in your opening.

#4. Persuasion: No potential reader has unlimited time and resources. Your readers, just like you, decide what to read and how many books to purchase. So it is up to you to be persuasive in your opening paragraph. Is your story worth reading? Of course, you can't just say something like, "Read this story as it will change your life." Instead, you need to intrigue your reader with the notion of a fascinating or important or humorous or... story that is worth his or her time and money. Even a book that is written for one's family and therefore has no out of pocket cost for the reader must be compelling enough for a family member to want to spend time with it.

You'll need to find a way to be persuasive through provocative dialogue, or fascinating sensory details, or rich character description, or exotic places/past times, or strong emotional connections. It is a case of show, don't tell.

#5. Prose: Polish your prose. From the start, your words need to be true to your style and voice. You definitely don't want to pull a bait and switch on your readers by changing the point of view or tone between your opening and your later chapters. The same tale could be told with humor, drama, mystery. However, only one approach is right for you.

And finally, just because you have written your first paragraph, it doesn't mean it is ready for prime time. Put it aside for a few days. Go back and read it again. Think about how the reader will react. Get a friend to read it or even better a member of your writing group. This takes us back to #1 People. Consider if you have begun your relationship with readers in the way that works for you and your story.

Enter Your First Paragraph (Fiction or NonFiction) in Our Contest

Pamela Jane Bell is a regular guest blogger on http://WomensMemoirs.com. She is the popular author of more books than I have fingers and is currently completing her memoir. Pamela came up with this fantastic idea for a First Paragraph contest and I couldn't resist. She has judged many contests and is excited about this one.

For full rules, please go to:

http://bit.ly/URBTFh

Just remember that all entries must be submitted by midnight September 3. Winners will be announced later in the month.

Write now: Polish an opening paragraph in an old story or write a new one, and enter the contest.

Matilda Butler is an award-winning co--author of the collective memoir Rosie's Daughters: The "First Woman To" Generation Tells Its Story and Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep and Co-Founder of Women’s Memoirs.com.

August 18, 2014

Mystery Solved

SmokeI couldn’t put words to the vision, perhaps because the vision itself wasn’t clear. Looking across the Godfrey’s living room while  babysitting, I vaguely sensed a phantom group of sophisticated people gathered in a dimly lit, smoke-filled living room much like this one. People lounged on sofa and chairs, some sitting on the floor. They sipped martinis or gin and tonic, discussed philosophy, and ascended to levels of vision inaccessible to mere mortals. These beings were in touch with another realm, larger than life. In touch with the gods? This vision stirred a nameless yearning for something mysterious and transcendent.

Though I seldom thought of it until several years ago when I began writing about those years, that vision has stuck with me for many decades, remaining clear and compelling, an enduring enigma. Over a few years, I’ve written about it from at least a dozen different slants, chipping away, bit by bit, seeking to discern what I was yearning for. Words like transcendence, intellectual and vision came to mind. Those people seemed privy to divine secrets that I wanted to know too.

I came to see this quest for understanding as my metaphor of what may well be mankind’s eternal quest, the force driving most religions. But the mystery remained locked. I continued to hold it gently in the back of my mind.

Last week I found a fascinating thought in Paul Watzlawick’s classic, How Real Is Real? Mankind craves universal unity. I felt a buzz of recognition when I read that thought, and I reread it several times over the next few days, seeking to fully understand its appeal. This seemed deeper than casual allusions to world peace or fear-mongering talk about sinister cabals.

Finally the dots connected: those phantom people in the smoky room were at one with at one with Source.

As I realized this, several related pieces fell into place. They saw order. Of course! I’ve mentioned before that Story is the operating system of the human brain. We crave unity. We also crave order, logic, understanding. We want to make sense of life.

But wait. I discovered another channel in this scene, one I’d been unaware of. At least to my young mind, these people had broken through the shackles of convention and societal expectations. They were free. They were bold. They were unafraid. They were happy with who they were, and for at least that moment, that was enough.

Bottom line, they were immersed in universal LOVE.

Well, what do you know – universal love is something I know a bit about, and it doesn’t take a cocktail party to find. After all the books, the rituals, the prayers, the seeking, it’s just … there. My mystery is solved, and through the magic of story and the magic of words – my words, Watzlawick’s words, and many others – the yearning has come full circle. How delightfully ironic that once I saw, I already knew.

Perhaps my life would be equally rich if I’d never unlocked this nagging mystery, but the fact that it stayed freshly in mind for well over fifty years, begging to be solved, says something. I’m convinced I would never have unraveled it if I had not discovered various forms of life writing. I’ve journaled about it, scribbled random thoughts,  written essays and stories. My writing process chipped away at the shell, thinning it to the point that Watzlawick’s words could rupture that final protective membrane.

What will I do with this insight now? Maybe nothing. Or maybe I’ll include it in another memoir or work it into a novel. For now it’s on my scrap pile awaiting further disposition. Or not. Perhaps solving it is enough.

Write now: write in whatever form you choose about a compelling vision, memory or thought that’s puzzled you for years. Keep writing about it off and on until its message becomes clear.