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Tell Your Story

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”
- Joan Didion

You’re already doing it!

If you’re a mom, chances are that you’re making scrapbooks or writing in a journal.  At the very least, you’re probably keeping a daily calendar that logs the details and events of your family’s life.  Whether or not you realize it, these simple routines of a mom’s daily routine can become the basis of a memoir or your autobiography. 

The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady was an actual nature diary kept in 1906 by Edith Holden.  In a small, bound journal, Holden used watercolors to illustrate the plants and creatures that surrounded her home in the English village of Olton.  The beautiful journal included her poetry, her innermost thoughts and the meticulously noted details of her observations during nature walks.  A photographic replica of Edith’s journal was printed by a small, English publisher in 1977.  It quickly reached the top of every bestseller list, was translated into 12 languages, sold more than 3 million copies and became the source of a line of merchandise. 

The problem with Edith Holden’s success story is that she died in a tragic accident in 1920 – more than 50 years before her country diary was published.  Don’t let this happen to you!

Each of us has at least one story inside of our hearts.

No matter how “normal” your life may seem, at some point you probably experienced something extraordinary.  Perhaps you witnessed an event that had historical significance.  Or, maybe watching the experience of a close personal friend or relative left you with a deep level of insight or understanding and because of witnessing the event you were changed by it. 

Memoirs are one of the most successful genres in the publishing industry and the trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.  Not every memoir that gets published becomes a best seller, but most usually sell the first publication printing.  As a result, publishers are always looking for the next memoir to add to their catalog.   

Before you think that writing your memoir would be impossible, I’m going let you in on a secret.  The biggest difference between you and the authors of published memoirs is that they have taken the time to write their stories down.  It really is as simple as that – if you don’t play the game, you can’t win the prize.

In many ways, writing a memoir is the easiest form of creativity you can choose.  All that is required is a pencil, a piece of paper and a willingness to share your innermost thoughts.  Granted, there are a few rules of structure and format that you ought to follow while sharing those thoughts.  But after you hear the seven most important rules of writing you’re going to wonder why you waited this long to get started.

Rule #1: Every story has a beginning, middle and end.

There is an entire segment of the publishing industry devoted to books that tell you how to write a book.  The best of these theories will talk about the three-act dramatic structure.  The worst will make up new names for the three-act dramatic structure, or suggest that there are really five acts or nine acts.  They’ll often give the acts interesting little names that might be accompanied by a trademark symbol.  But at the end of the day, all of these theories can be distilled to the same basic rule.  Every story has a beginning, middle and end. 

In the beginning, we see what your life is like under normal circumstances.  Then, something happens – an inciting incident – that changes everything and delivers you from the beginning to the middle.  In the middle, you will tell the main points of the story until you ultimately arrive at the point of no return.  The final act brings closure to all of the main points and you reach an understanding that you are irrevocably changed.  This is where your story should end.  

Rule #2: Answer the basic questions a journalist would ask:
Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?

The lead paragraph of every good news story tells you everything you need to know about the story.  If the lead paragraph is written well, you’ll want to read the whole story to explore the details.  This is an excellent rule of thumb to guide you through the process of writing your memoir. 

Who are you and who are the people that surround you in your memoir?
What happened to you and/or them?
Where did it happen?
When did it happen?
Why did it happen?
How did things turn out?

The answers to these questions will create the spine of your story. 

Rule #3:  Memoirs are stories about the intimate lives of
and relationships between people.

The only teacher who ever taught me anything about writing was Samson Raphaelson, author of The Jazz Singer – first as a short story, then as a Broadway play (Day of Atonement) and finally as the first “talkie” movie with synchronized sound in 1927.  The story of The Jazz Singer was grounded in Sam’s real life experience.  During the two years that he taught and mentored me, Sam taught me the most important thing a writer needs to know: “A story is about people and what happens to them.” 

You will provide the narration of the story in the first person point of view.  That’s a fancy way of saying that you’re going to tell the story in your own voice.  There will be other characters that are crucial to the telling of the various incidents of your memoir.  These characters will have to be described in significant detail. 

It is important to note that characters have relationships with other characters.  If they don’t interact directly, they might have knowledge of each other.  Certainly, they will have opinions of each other.  All of this must be managed effectively in the telling of your story. 

Since we are discussing memoir, there must be one fact that remains first and foremost in your thoughts throughout the process.  You will be writing about real people who may be alive and/or have family and friends who are alive.  Essentially, you have a legal and a moral obligation to protect them – while at the same time protecting your own legal rights.  Your options include concealing their identity or obtaining their written consent in a legally binding document.   

Rule #4: Every story has a plot.

Plot is a term that typically refers to the sequence of events that the characters in your memoir transit through.  Again, some of the books on writing might use creative terms to describe the sequence of events.  None of those creative terms will change the fact that the sequence of events that your characters experience is a plot. 

Although memoirs are character driven stories, the characters are taking action in the story.  They go places, do things, and talk to other characters.  They discover facts that are relevant to the telling of the story.  They make decisions.  They make mistakes.  They face challenges.   

Your memoir must have a plot.  This is the framework around which your story is wrapped. 

Rule #5: Every good story has a theme.

A theme is the larger, universal truth that your characters will learn and/or demonstrate in the course of the story.  It is the single statement that makes your story important to the reader. 

Most themes are stated in a way that makes them sound a bit trite:

  • You can’t go home again.
  • There’s no place like home.
  • Sometimes you have to travel the world to realize that what you were looking for was right in your own backyard. 
  • Love conquers all. 

Push yourself to devise subtle methods of expressing your theme.  Nevertheless, even if you must blurt it out, the statement of theme should be present early in the story. 

Rule #6: Every story takes place within a cultural and historical context.

You must establish a sense of time and place for your story.  Even the most personal story takes place in the middle of a busy world.  There are news events, holidays, changes of season, etc.  People experience the routines of daily life – from the start of a new day to bedtime and including everything from eating, bathing, going to work, traveling and waiting. 

Perhaps your story includes characters whose ethnic backgrounds illuminate the details of your memoir.  Or, your story might have a strong regional influence that saturates the characters and their sequence of events. 

These details are like the herbs and spices that can transform plain white rice into an array of exotic meals.  They can transform a universal experience (like falling in love) into an adventure that illuminates the traditions and rituals of a world some of us may not have experienced – or even considered. 

Rule #7: A story is as long or short as it needs to be. 

When publishers define a book’s length they don’t talk about how many pages will be between the covers.  Publishers define a book’s length by word count.  A typical non-fiction book will be approximately 50,000 words long.  Fifty thousand is a very scary number.  It’s hard to imagine what 50,000 of anything looks like – but 50,000 words?  No wonder there is a mystique about how hard it is to write a book!

Let’s re-do the math.  The average “typewritten” page has approximately 500 words.  50,000 words divided by 500 words per page equals 100 pages.  So, the manuscript for a full-length non-fiction book will look like 100 pages of single-spaced words written with a 12 point font. 

Does the image of 100 pages still sound too scary?  Consider the fact that not all stories need to be full length book manuscripts.  Some stories are meant to be short.  Would 2500 words – or five typed pages – sound as scary?  That’s the length of many of the longer articles in magazines. 

One of the biggest mistakes beginning writers make is that they decide on the length of their story before they begin telling it.  I can assure you that this is a long and winding road that leads to failure and frustration.  Instead of falling into this trap, forget about how long or how short your story should be.  Allow yourself to discover this in the writing process.  Tell your story in as much or as little detail as your story requires. 

If you honor these seven simple rules, they will guide your writing process to a successful result. 

Here’s how to begin.

The first stage of writing anything involves planning your story.  This is the equivalent of an architect drawing the blueprint for a building.  The architect works in two stages – blueprint and construction drawing – both of which serve different functions.  You will do a similar two-part process that will begin with brainstorming and transform into the outline of your story. 

The kind of paper a writer uses is a very personal decision.  Some writers can only work on computer, while others insist on using a yellow legal pad.  I like to start the process by working with large pads of drawing paper – at least 18x24 – preferably spiral bound with perforations that enable me to tear out a page that has a clean line. 

Again, writers who begin with paper tend to have specific preferences for the kind of writing tool they use.  Some prefer pens but many insist on the Number 2 pencil.  I feel most comfortable working with gel pens in multiple colors.  I make my primary notes in black but assign different colors to have different functions – red for character notes, blue for lines of dialogue, green for plot points and bits of action, etc. 

After you decide what kind of writing tools you’re going to use, you need to understand the flow of information that will be required to tell your story.   

Character is the first place to start.  Remember the guiding principal of my teacher, Sam Raphaelson: your story is about you and the people around you and what happens to you. 

Give each character in your memoir – including you – a separate page of notes.  Write their name in the center of the page and start to brainstorm the facts and emotions and skills that make them who they are.  One technique that I use regularly is that I write the notes about the character’s back story (personal history) on the left side of the page.  Their positive observations and personal attributes are written above their name.  Their negative observations and personal attributes are written below their name.  The things they discover throughout the story are written to the right of their name. 

After you’ve “designed” the characters in your story, you can move on to the sequence of events that you and the other characters experience.  Begin with the broad strokes and then go back to fill in the details.  This is where Rule #6 comes to the forefront.  You have to fill your story with details of information that illuminate the historical and cultural frame of reference.   

Where do I find the information?

The Internet is the greatest support tool for a writing mom.  Just 20 years ago, the time it took to go to the library and do research was prohibitive to moms.  Now, you’re just a few strokes away from websites that can tell you what has happened on a specific date in any year.  You can view maps from different decades.  You can research historical figures and regional locales. 

But, when it comes to memoirs the most valuable research materials are probably lurking in your hall closet, or your attic, or tucked under your bed.  These are the diaries, journals, photographs, legal documents, news clippings, records and correspondence that comprise the paper trail of your life.  If you’ve already gathered these things into scrapbooks, you’re miles ahead of the game.  If not, perhaps the process of creating a scrapbook can become a mixed-media format for your memoir.   

Remember – this story is about you and your life experience.  As we go through life, we make choices about the things we keep.  These are the details that create the narrative of our life.  It is the natural place to begin to find the story of you.   

Don’t start writing yet!

When you’ve completed the brainstorming process and filled in the details that you discovered through your research, it’s time to organize it all into a formal outline.  This is the equivalent of an architect’s construction drawing.  It’s going to tell you when to introduce characters, describe a location, discuss a plot point or relate a conversation. 

Some writers are afraid of outlining because they mistakenly think that they have to begin at the beginning and write through to the end.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The outline is the place where you make your mistakes!  This is where you can juggle events and insert details and interweave the stories of you and the characters that surround you until you are satisfied with the way the story flows.  So, think of the outline as a written equivalent of clay that stays soft and can be reshaped until you’re satisfied with the results and are ready to move on to the actual writing process.   

All writers can benefit from crafting a detailed outline for their project.  But moms benefit from the additional remedy for the complications of our daily routine.  If you can only sit down to write for half and hour at a time, the outline will help you track your work flow.  Instead of having to re-read what you’ve already written, you can make a note in your outline and pick up from that point the next time you sit down to write.  So, the more detailed you can make your outline, the easier it will be for you to squeeze effective writing sessions into your schedule.       

Then what happens?

As soon as you are satisfied with your outline, you are ready to begin writing the first draft of your manuscript.  At this point, the goal is to get it all down on paper.  The real key to good writing is re-writing, but you can’t get to that until you have something to work with.

At this stage of the process, you need to let the emotion pour out of your heart and onto the page.  Always write the first draft of anything as quickly as possible.  If you’re writing quickly, you don’t have time to judge yourself.  If you’re not judging yourself, the experience of writing will be more enjoyable and more productive.  Some writers like to begin every writing session by reading and/or editing what they’ve written in the last session.  But if you do this, it will take you far longer to finish your first draft.  Worse yet, you might become discouraged and never finish it.   If you trust your outline, it will provide the parameters for what you should be writing each time you sit down to work.  As long as you stick to your outline, all of the groundwork you laid will propel your writing from the beginning through the middle to the end. 

Once you have your first draft finished, the real writing can begin – but not right away.

As soon as you finish the final paragraphs of your memoir, you may be tempted to sit down and read what you’ve written.  I urge you to avoid the temptation.  Instead, print out a copy of your manuscript and put it in a box on a shelf –then walk away from it.  Put your kids in the van and take a road trip.  Or, paint your kitchen a different color.  Or drop the kids off at Gramma’s house and slip away for a romantic weekend with your husband.  Do whatever you can to keep your mind off your story – but whatever you do, DO NOT read your manuscript for one week!

Think of this week as the sherbet that’s clears your palate between the fish and meat courses of an elaborate meal.  You want a chance to clear your thoughts from the first draft so that when you read the manuscript it seems fresh to you. 

When the week is up, try to put aside enough time to read the entire first draft.  When you do this, make sure you just read it.  DO NOT have a pen or pencil in your hand to make notes.  You’ll do that in your second read through.  Right now, you just want to read the story all the way through and then put it down for another day or two.  In that day or two you can start to frame your overall impressions of your first draft.  Keep a little notebook in your pocket so you can jot down thoughts as they come to you throughout your daily routines.  Then it’s time to start the real work.

The key to great writing is RE-writing!

The next step in the process is to sit down with your manuscript and a red (or blue or green) pen.  You’re going to start making notes and you need to be able to see them as separate from the black print of your manuscript. 

One of the most challenging aspects of rewriting is being objective enough to be honest with your self.  It’s easy to fall in love with everything you write – and why shouldn’t you?  You created a plan, you developed your outline and you followed that outline when you wrote.  Why, then, should you have to rewrite?  Rewriting makes your work better and you deserve the opportunity to show just how good you can be. 

The process of putting your onto paper was hard, but once they’re there the process of taking them off the paper is even harder.  You have poured your heart and soul onto the page.  Now you’re going to shift into an analytical mode and read every sentence, every paragraph and every chapter with one thought in mind – how can I improve this?
I highly recommend that you do this initial editing on print out rather than try to work directly into the computer.  The second draft is a work in process.  If you make your changes on the computer, you’re not going to be aware of how much progress you have made with the revised draft. 

During the second draft stage, you should go through the pages over and over.  Write notes in the margins, between the lines and on the back of the page.  The key is to find the best possible way to express your thoughts on paper.  When you think you’re done, go back to the computer, copy/paste your first draft into a new document and enter your revisions. 

Now, take another week away from the second draft.  This is the time for you to decide on trusted friends or family members who love you enough to read your work and comment on it.  But this is where you face a litmus test of courage.  It’s not going to do you any good to show it to someone who will tell you it’s wonderful no matter what.  You have to show it to the people who love you enough to be honest with you.   

When your readers give you notes, listen to them carefully and write down what they say.  If you are able to have a few people read your work, their combined notes are going to help you decide what changes to make for your third draft.  Listen to these notes with an open mind, then go back and read your second draft again.  Your mission is to evaluate whether or not you are going to make the changes your note-givers suggested.  You will also be surprised to discover how many additional ideas for change or edit you will want to make.  Then, go back through the entire rewriting process and create a third draft. 

When the story is finished, stop writing!!

Ta-da!  You have finally finished writing your memoir.  Savor the feeling of accomplishment!  If the opportunity arises, you now have full authority to identify yourself as a budding author.   

Tell Your Story!
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