[Podcast] Memoir as Genre vs. Memoir as Strategy

What is memoir as a genre and memoir as a strategy? Senior Vice President of Editorial at Harper One Mickey Maudlin identifies the differences.

“So what? Why does memoir categorization matter?” It’s a question that all writers setting out to write a memoir must ask.

We live in an age where just about anybody can write a memoir—and many will write a memoir, even if their story is unremarkable. 

There’s an ocean of memoirs swallowing up the truly memorable—and readable—ones. If you want your memoir to gain an audience, you have to set it apart from others, deciding first the most effective way to tell your story. And more importantly, asking yourself why anyone would read your story.

Once you know your “why,” you need to understand the difference between the two categories of memoir writing.

We caught up with Senior Vice President of Editorial at Harper One Mickey Maudlin, who identifies the difference between memoir as a genre and memoir as a strategy.

Memoir as a Genre

We typically think of memoirs as autobiographical. They tell the story of a distinct period of time, often following a chronological narrative arc.

This is what Mickey calls “memoir as a genre.”

Memoirs as a genre are collected stories about someone’s life. There is not necessarily one theme that carries the collected stories. And they typically do not connect to a political, religious, or cultural phenomena. These memoirs are simply an arc (often a particular period of time) of human life.

The most successful books in this category have an exceptional story to share, like near-death experiences, scandalous-murder-mysteries, or cult-associated stories. They provide readers a rare look into something that few will ever experience.  They strike an emotional chord and gain some early buzz on the talk-show circuit. Because of media buzz they tend to gain early momentum although they lose popularity over time.

There are also memoirs that succeed because they are written exceptionally well and cover a topic that has never been tackled.

Take, for example, Lab Girl, a memoir which explores both the narrator’s vocational discovery as well as insights into the secret lives of plants. The writing of Lab Girl is both poetic and academically challenging. The writing pulls the reader into a story that might not be engrossing (at first glance) to the masses.

Memoir as a genre is best executed by skilled writers. And they are typically more difficult to write if you don’t have a remarkable life story.

Memoir as Strategy

Memoir as a writing strategy communicates an overarching message or theme. It explores different stories of your life, but it’s main focus is to share a core message, whether it’s on forgiveness, friendship, or developing your writing voice. These types of memoirs typically are instructive.

Popular authors, such as Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott, and Barbara Brown...

[Podcast] Authors of "I'll Push You" Offer Tips on Story Structure

We’ve all studied basic story structures in our high school English classes. And if you’re anything like me, you probably purged them from your memory. What will I ever need to know this for?

But your English teacher had some valuable stuff to say: story structure, particularly the narrative arc, is just as important to memoir writing as it is to fiction writing.

Dave and I recently sat down with co-authors, Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray, to discuss their memoir, “I’ll Push You.” The co-authors emphasized the importance of getting your story architecture in place before writing.

Why Story Architecture Is Important

Story structures helps you as an author establish your overarching theme--the "why" of your story. It also makes sure your story flows. Those two things work in tandem to hook your reader, so they'll keep reading.

Here are three tips on story structure, so your memoir will be read and move others.

1. Form Your Book's Skeleton 

Before you begin writing,  brainstorm the general idea of your book. Start by creating a chapter-by-chapter skeleton.

Dig into the thematic components, characters, and flashbacks critical to the narrative. With each new idea, think of how it relates to the whole of your book. What is the big idea? How do the individual ideas build to support the primary idea? Which comes first, and which should come last? Where do you want to take the reader, and how do these stories create movement for that journey?

The brainstorming phase is the perfect opportunity to consider the flow of your book and your overarching message. Don’t be afraid to delete ideas or pencil in potential concepts.

As hard as it is to do, scrap those that don’t work, and fiddle around with those you think might work until you have a working structure.

If you’re more daring, consider the connecting pieces between your chapters. Justin and Patrick brainstormed ideas to transition the closing sentence of a chapter into the beginning sentence of the succeeding chapter. This will help your book flow.

2. Establish Your Characters' Journey

A book cannot succeed without complex characters. Memoirs included. Proper characterization is important to your story’s structure, because its their journey (and their transformation!) that creates the narrative arc.

When structuring your story, consider the characters' pain, joys, internal dilemmas, moments of decision, their hardships, and their victories as well as insights--even if small.

Your story’s structure will reflect your characters' journey from conflict to resolution (even if that resolution is complicated).

3. Set Your Pace

Story structure builds the pace of your book. You don’t want to spend too much time on a single section of your story. And you don’t want to rush other sections. Intentionally structuring your book will prevent either from happening.

The structure of your...

[Podcast] What Magazines Teach Us about Writing Well

By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks

Each of us has spent quite a bit of time in the magazine industry. During those years, we learned some skills from magazine writing that can translate to book writing.

1. You have to know your audience. Every magazine exists because of a well-defined audience, so well-defined that this audience is willing to pay $19.95 a year or $49 a year to pay for it. With magazines, the writing has to be so engaging, that people will pay for it.

Think about that.

A book is like that, in that, people are buying content. They are paying $19.95 or $24.95 to read something. That’s a big commitment.

One of the metrics of magazine vitality and financial health is the “renewal rate”: That is, once someone buys the magazine once or subscribes once, how likely is that person to renew their subscription. Whether they renew is entirely based on the content: the writing.

With a book, whether someone refers your book is also 100% based on the writing. Did that book move the purchaser in some way? Did it inspire him?

2. You have to have a hook. A magazine editor will make you refine your angle until it is grabby. 

I remember writing a home feature story for a shelter magazine and I started off the story about a young couple buying a bungalow in shambles. shambles. Squatters lived there, the walls were falling apart, and the yard was overgrown. I then talked about how the young couple brought the home back to life with lots of love.

Boring, right?

The editor said it was a cliche hook. And she made me rewrite it with a fresh angle. I changed the story to talk about the 1940s love letters the couple found in the lathe of their home during renovation, and how they were writing their own love story in the same home.

This is a hook. It's specific, unique and memorable. We talk about the necessity of hooks in chapter writing often. You have to have a hook for each chapter. The hook isn’t necessarily a long drawn-out story. It can be a vignette. It can be a powerful statistic.

Each chapter you have to be ready to take the reader on a journey. The hook grabs their attention, so they don’t bail

Often, the hook will connect on a emotional level with the reader, so they are engaged from the get-go.

3. Titling is absolutely essential to arresting attention.  I'm not great at titling. I admit it. I try to be clever, and I'm just not clever. But I can appreciate a good title, one that both is descriptive and clever--that's arresting. 

A strong title will capture the attention of the reader—often in a clever way—to get them to read the article. But the title must also speak to the content of the article. I just read an article in a British shelter magazine about a rehabbed barn situated in the English countryside that was filled with modern art and furniture. The title was “Barn to Be Wild”--a fun play on words.

When you're titling a...

[Podcast] 5 Hacks When You're Lost Writing a Chapter

By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks

You're not a writer if you've never been absolutely lost while working on a piece, whether a blog, an article, or, especially, the chapter of a book.

Writing is thinking in motion. You may have not thought about your idea in this way before, until you laid down that sentence.

Dave and I have both experienced varying periods of being lost while writing a book. We know the pain. And we've learned from it. Here are 5 hacks to get back on track when you're lost writing a chapter.

1. Get clear on your chapter thesis. This is the most basic place to start. If you have lost your way, it might be because your thesis of the chapter wasn't crisp when you started writing. If you're not clear on what the chapter is about, then you'll lack clarity on destination. Without a destination, you wander. Content gets added that doesn’t belong and now you don’t know how to reconcile it.

When you're lost, ask yourself, "What is my thesis?" and strip back the chapter to only the material that supports that thesis. You’ll likely have to cut material--and that is scary--but you’ll have energy to complete the chapter as you focus the purpose of the chapter.

2. Ask, "Do I need more material to work with?" You might have a great thesis for your chapter and still feel lost while writing because you haven't done enough pre-writing work. Often you have an idea about something, but to illustrate it, apply it, or prove it you need to do more research.

That may mean reading more. Or, maybe you need to conduct some interviews. Or maybe you simply need to go back to the research you've already done with fresh eyes and pull out new insights.

3. Focus on where you're headed. Sometimes we get lost because we are trying to do too much in the chapter. It’s run-on. Some of the material doesn’t belong in the chapter, and you need to reserve it for another chapter. 

This is really a structural issue.

Think about where you want the chapter to begin and end. What falls between those two bookends? If there is material that is not leading to that end, then you need to cut it. It goes back to structure.

It might be helpful to stand back and jot down a rough outline of the chapter. You’ll see the flow better. The act of slowing down will help you see what’s distracting from that flow.

4. Get clear on your unique contribution to the subject. High school and college English teach you how to synthesize other people's ideas; that's an important skill. But it is a different skill than what writing a book demands.

When you write a book, you lead with your unique idea, and use other people's ideas to support yours.

If you’re dealing with research, you might be lost writing a chapter because you are adding too much of the research and haven’t fully sifted it for the stuff that really matters to your unique idea.

Sometimes there are chapters we need...

[Podcast] An Introduction to Writing a Memoir

By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks

The reasons for writing a memoir are many. Some write to understand their past; others share truths from their past to help others with their future. Still others write memoirs as a way of preserving their family history.

Every person has a story to tell. It's how you tell the story that makes it a memoir. Here is an introduction to writing a memoir--and how to get started with 5 easy steps:

1. Tap into your "why." This question is the bedrock of all book projects - but especially of memoir writing:

Is writing about your past pure therapy?

For many, the act of writing is therapeutic, but does your "inner work" need to be revealed to the outer world? Will it be helpful to others?

Maybe. Maybe not. You have to grapple with the relevance of your story to a larger audience.

Sometimes the audience who needs to hear your story is small. Maybe you're writing a story of your past for your family. Some writers are motivated to preserve part of their family's history - and the meaning behind those moments.

When you grapple with why you want to write your memoir, you identify your purpose -and that purpose helps you determine which stories to tell.

2. Ask yourself, "Do I care if someone reads this?" Memoirs are deeply personal. Often the most painful and raw moments are those that allow you to impart the most wisdom. and connect with the reader. The conflict in these moments are tinder for a great narrative.

But check your motivations.

Are you spilling the entire can of beans just for shock value, a bid for sympathy, or to self-congratulate? Or do those moments have a purpose within the narrative? Successful memoirs have a purpose larger than narcissistic motivations.  

Keep in mind that over-sharing could be risky - and not just for you. Would someone else's reputation be damaged if you publish your story? Are you willing to risk the well-being of others? 

3. Your memoir needs a overarching theme. Or a thesis that ties the narrative together. Otherwise you will have a string of stories with no unifying purpose. A theme helps you narrow down the scope of your storytelling as well. It serves as a filter for what stories (and parts of a story) should and shouldn't be included.

A story can be told a hundred different ways and deliver a different message depending on how you tell it (Will you use humor or irony?) and what you focus on {What will you include, and what will you exclude?). 

Always go back to your theme. It will keep your memoir focused, interesting, and readable.

4. Memoirs are story-driven. Memoirs aren't autobiographies, which are typically chronological and fact-based, and sometimes rely on research and data outside of personal experience to provide context. Memoirs aren't necessarily chronological, but instead focus on moments in time.

These moments are narratives that should be written as good fiction stories are written: with tension, dialogue,...

[Podcast] A.C.T.S. - the 4 Essential Elements of Writing a Great Story

By Dave Goetz and Melissa Parks

Story. Story. Story. No one argues with the idea that stories are one of the primary ways we communicate as humans. It's one thing to enjoy a great story. And quite another to write a great one.

But what are the essential elements of writing a great story?

Recently Dave and I spoke with Steve Mathewson, author of "The Art of Preaching Old Testament Narrative," who laid out the four essential elements of writing a great story using the acronym A.C.T.S.:

1. Action. Every story has a crisis, problem, or challenge. If you don't have that, then you don't have a story. Crisis - and delaying the resolution of the tension created by that crisis - keeps the reader reading. The temptation is to lead with the "Aha!" moment. But when the  tension is over the story is over, whether you're done telling it or not. 

2. Characters. A good story will show the development of characters. You can tell the reader that a particular character struggles with envy for instance. But that is uninteresting. It also doesn't connect the reader to the character and, therefore, your story.  The more a reader can identify with the complexity of a character's human experience, the more your reader will be drawn into the story.  

To get started, Steve recommends creating a list of characteristics of your characters. Then begin to grapple with the why of the characteristics. Why is your character envious? What prompts him or her to become more envious? What does the envy look like? What does he or she say when struggling with envy?

Once you've done a character study,  begin to identify dialogue and action that might paint the picture of the character. As the old writing adage goes, show, don't tell.

3. Talking. This is related to the previous point about characters. Stories need dialogue to help readers understand a character's motivations and struggles, without the writer simply telling the reader about them. 

Dialogue might be one of the most difficult elements of writing a great story.

How the character speaks is just as important as what he or she says. This means understanding colloquialisms and idioms that your character might use. It also means keeping dialogue brief. Think about how you talk with others? We rarely ramble on. There's a give and take, which has cadence.

The same is true with stories: dialogue with a cadence helps move the reader along, while also revealing the motivations and personality of your characters.

4. Setting. Simply, this is about the time and place of where the story takes place. Setting, however, is so much more than that.

Setting actually influences how you understand the story. It helps contextualize characters, heightens the tension in the story, and also communicates deeper themes.

[Podcast] Caryn Rivadeneira on the Hard Work of Book Proposals and Her Writing Disciplines

By Melissa Parks and Dave Goetz

There's the book idea. But first there is the hard work of book proposals. To grab the attention of the editorial committee and the pub board, the proposal needs to stand out. 

It's a craft.

Professional writer Caryn Rivadeneira learned the book proposal craft over two decades of writing and publishing 13 books for both adults and children. "Your proposal has to stand head and shoulders above all the others proposals to get a book deal," Caryn says.

A strong book proposal does more than just identify your thesis, structure, and comparable titles. It demonstrates why your book matters and why it matters that you are the one to write it. It can't be too general, nor can it be too eccentric (after all, it has to have mass appeal).

The hard work of a book proposal is foundational not just to publishing your book but also to writing a book. Caryn says that writing a book proposal before a book is fully formed helps her identify if her idea has depth--if it can be sustained over the course of ten chapters.

She says it forces the author to ask, "Is this really a book, or just a magazine article?"

When you spend the time on a proposal, you give yourself ample time to explore this question. Each chapter must  be substantial enough to serve a purpose in the narrative arc of the book.

The narrative arc, typically associated with fiction writing, is paramount in nonfiction writing, according to Caryn. You start with the problem--why you're writing the book in the first place. Then you continue to build a case for why the problem exists. Then you must resolve the problem with your idea. 

For Caryn, when she writes her book, she goes back to the structure of her proposal. While she hasn't answered all the questions in the chapter summaries, she has the big ideas to work with. And that simplifies the writing process. 

Whether or not you intend to pitch a traditional publisher, seek the support of a hybrid publisher, or self publish, crafting a book proposal provides a roadmap for your book writing journey.

Tune into today for more advice from Caryn on finding time for writing, what a good book agent does for an author, and why some writers prefer to self publish.

 

[Podcast] Advice for Rewriting after Your Book Idea Changes

By Melissa Parks and Dave Goetz

When you write a book, it often feels like you'll never reach your final destination. It's one thing when you're at mile marker one, and are just starting to write. That's when it's supposed to feel far away.

But when you're well into the book, and your thinking shifts, you might feel like you'll never make it. You're forced to go back and rewrite. Redo work. Get rid of stories and chapters, and add significant chunks of content.

That feels like a breakdown. 

But having to rewrite after your book idea changes is completely normal. In fact, you ought to expect it. The phrase "Writing is thinking. Thinking is writing," is cliché for a reason. It's a universal truth.

When you write, you're forming new ideas that have never been articulated. The more you write, the more you think. The more you think, the more your previous writing needs to be rethought--and re-written. 

Sometimes the ideas change incrementally. Other times, you realize your audience is not who you originally thought it was. Or maybe your thesis changes, which demands you do more research.

Yes, it's completely normal for your book idea to change. In fact, you maybe should worry if you never have a mental shift. Are you digging into the topic deeply enough?

Why Your Book Idea Changes

Feedback is critical in helping you form your thinking for your book. It's a blessed curse. It forces your thinking, which will make your book better. That's the blessing. But it also forces  you to rewrite. That's the curse.

This is an emotionally tough moment. Often you have to tap into that reason you're writing the book in the first place. Then give yourself a break. Accept that this is part of the writer's journey.

In fact, it might be helpful to surround yourself with other writers. Join a writing group, where you can share similar roadblocks and ideas for getting past them. Or, read stories by authors who talk about how they pushed through the idea-shifting, re-writing moment.

Most of all, don't lose heart. These moments are completely normal. There are days when you'll want to stop. Then, get back at it. You're a writer. And writers write and rewrite. People need to hear your words.

 

[Podcast] Memoir Writer Christina Quist on Baboons, Storytelling, and Morning Pages

by Melissa Parks and Dave Goetz

"Will you read this for me?"

It is one of the scariest questions to ask when you are a first-time author seeking feedback. Christina Quist, author of “ Kaleidoscope: absurdly short stories of traveling and unraveling,” can attest to that.

But the feedback Christina received was elemental in shaping her ideas for a book. Christina’s book started out like many books do, as journal entries and blog posts. She knew people liked her writing, but she wasn’t sure if there was a enough for a book.

Enter the reader with feedback: “These stories are great, but they’re not enough. You need to put some meat on these.”

Putting “meat on the bones” is different for every author.

Sometimes it means adding more details to help the reader live what you’re describing. Sometimes it means adding more research. Sometimes it means adding more of your thought process.

For Christina, she had to first recognize that her thinking wasn’t completely clear for the reader.

“I assumed people knew what I was thinking,” says Christina “and were following my thought pattern. But I needed to make a trail of my thoughts, and lead people to how I got there.”

With that initial feedback, Christina embarked on a seven-year journey to turn her skeletal ramblings into a memoir, which she self-published. In this episode, Dave and Melissa talk with Christina about seeking feedback, self-publishing, and tips for writing. One provocative writing tip is develop a habit of “morning pages.”

[Podcast] Meteorologist Amy Sweezey on Writing Children's Books

By Melissa Parks and Dave Goetz

It's one thing to get up at 2 AM for something special like a long road trip to Disney.

It's quite another to get at 2 AM every day for your job. Yes, 2 AM. Every week day.

For years, meteorologist Amy Sweezey went to bed early in the evening and rose at 2 AM in order to do the 4:30 AM news. Her discipline and hard work paid off. In 2018, Amy was named "Broadcaster of the Year" by the National Weather Association.

Early in her career as a meteorologist, Amy started speaking at schools, helping children understand the basics of weather. She developed a passion for teaching children about her favorite topic and started to write a book. Then came motherhood, and Amy set aside her writing aspirations for more than a decade. When she picked up writing again, she self-published two books: a fiction book for children called It Never, Ever Snows in Florida and a nonfiction book, Let's Talk Weather.

Let's Talk Weather won both a gold medal and bronze medal in the 2018 Florida Authors & Publishers Association President's Book Awards. Be sure to visit Amy's web site for more information on her books and career as a meteorologist.

Sticking to Your Vision, Staying the Course

Today, Amy is a mom of three children and has spoken to countless groups of children about weather. Now she divides her time between mom duties, speaking, writing, hosting, and working as a Special Projects Producer for Growing Bolder.

In this episode, Melissa and Dave interview Amy on her book writing and self-publishing journey. You'll come away motivated to stick with your vision and to stay the course.