5 Memoir Writing Tips We Can Glean from Tina Brown

Vanity Fair Diaries

I just finished Tina Brown’s memoir, The Vanity Fair Diaries, about her time as editor-in-chief of the magazine Vanity Fair from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. I liked it. You can read my Goodreads review here.

Brown is recognized as one of the best magazine editors of all time, but she’s a very good writer as well. Here are five lessons we can learn from this memoir:

1. Keep a diary.

You can’t go back to your childhood and start writing down everything that happened throughout your life, but if you’re thinking that you may “someday” write a memoir, start keeping a diary now! Then you won’t have to rely on your memory. Imagine that! What if you opened a book of entries you’d written right at the time the events were taking place? Your memoir would be rich with detail. That’s exactly what you find in The Vanity Fair Diaries. Tina Brown kept an account of everything, from what she wore to what she ate, from the dinner party conversations to her impressions of the other guests. It’s like fiction, the way the writer can just make it up and mention all of those things, except these details are not made up.

2. Don’t worry so much about naming names.

One very common question we get is whether a memoir author should obscure the identity of people presented in an unflattering way. Maybe if you change the name and the description, and say in your memoir that some people’s identity has been disguised, that will keep them from suing you for defamation of character or libel or whatever authors are so afraid of getting sued for. Tina Brown throws caution to the wind and tells it like it is whether the person she’s trashing is famous or not. I don’t necessarily encourage you to be as harsh as she is in this book, but tell your truth. If it’s the truth, that’s your defense. And if it’s your opinion, as Brown presents a lot of her trash talk, then you’re free to express it how you wish.

3. Write in specifics, not generalities.

I explain this point in the Goodreads review, so I’ll just quote it:

For example, why call someone a girlfriend when you can call her a seductress? From “seductress,” the reader learns so much about Brown’s regard for the person. It’s not fiancée or lover, paramour or gold digger, not even temptress. Another example: Brown observes that it had become fashionable for women to remove their earrings before dessert. She tries in vain to make sense of this odd trend, but concludes simply that when “the creme brulée arrives,” the earrings come off. She could have just said “when the dessert arrives,” but she never would do that. I get it. Don’t repeat a word when you can drill into it and hit something specific instead.

4. Write a good first line—and a good last line.

I wouldn’t say this book has a great first line: “I am here in NYC at last, brimming with fear and insecurity.” But it does set the stage for the decade she’s about to roll out. It makes you want to read at least the next sentence. It’s the last line that I like: “But I also hear something else, something I can’t resist—the sweet Gershwin strings of a new opportunity.” An epilogue follows, but this is the last line of the main book. Again, Brown gets specific with “the sweet Gershwin strings.” It’s a true ending, closure. She lets us know that we’re leaving her in a good place. And she sets herself up for a possible sequel.

5. Show and tell.

The conventional advice to writers is “show, don’t tell.” Describe what’s going on in an objective way. Don’t say it smelled good in the room; tell the reader it smelled like freshly mown grass after a rain. The reader will get the idea that you think that smells good, since who wouldn’t? This is all great advice. But it’s a memoir, not a piece of fiction. You can tell the reader how you felt about seeing someone after so many years or how tasting the soup reminded you of your mother. You can let the reader into your brain and do a lot of showing but also some telling, as Tina Brown does in this book.

Selling a Memoir: One Author’s Top 10 Lessons to Share

Three books

Simon Michael Prior has written three books about his travels. He self-published them and says they’re selling pretty well. Simon created a video to share what he’s learned with other memoir authors.

Go ahead and watch the video, but I’ve also summarized his points for you along with my own comments:

1. Market Widely

Simon: While some of your friends and family will come up with excuses for not buying your book—“I don’t have a Kindle,” “I don’t have time to read,” “I’ll wait until you’ve written a couple more books”—someone you barely know, maybe just a Facebook friend, might be the one who buys your book and recommends it to friends. So make sure you tell everyone about your book.

Write My Memoirs: I agree with this. Don’t get mad at your friends. It’s not their job to make you a best-selling author. But also don’t be afraid to post your book repeatedly on all of your social media. You never know who might have a large Goodreads following and rave about your book in a review.

2. Continually Market

Simon: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint”—you’ll hear that a lot. Believe it! To sell a lot of books that you’ve self-published, you have to keep your sales consistent over a long period of time. It’s better to sell one copy a day for a long time than to sell 100 copies the first day and have the sales come to a stop. That means selling to strangers. Figure out what works for you to continue to sell to strangers, and keep doing it even if that requires you to do some marketing every day.

WMM: I’ve learned this the hard way! My children’s book, The Case of the Disappearing Kisses, sold relatively okay right out of the gate because it was winter holiday time and my friends bought it for the children in their lives. Both the parents and the kids loved the book, but then I stopped marketing and guess what? Crickets. When sales lag, both Google and Amazon will quickly make it harder for people to find your book in a general search. One of these days I have to do what Simon Says: figure out how to sell a really charming kids’ book to strangers and keep doing whatever it takes.

3. Be Prolific

Simon: You have to write more than one book—preferably many books. Each one helps to sell the others.

WMM: This is a tough one for memoir writers. Most of our Write My Memoirs authors have a single memoir in mind. It’s an itch they must scratch, but when the book is done, they’re done. I agree that sales tend to benefit when a writer has multiple titles. It’s obvious that someone who enjoys one of your books will want to purchase another, so with three books you’re tripling the exposure to each one. But I’ll also point out no one cares that Tara Westover has written only Educated. That book is good enough for one lifetime. Every hear of any book by Margaret Mitchell other than Gone With the Wind? I’d say that book did pretty well for itself. Click here for a list of other iconic one-hit wonders like Black Beauty.

4. Price Your Book Appropriately

Simon: A lower price doesn’t mean you’ll sell more. You may be able to sell as many books at a higher price as you can from a lower price, and of course then you’ll be making more money.

WMM: I agree. My children’s book is priced too low for me to make money on it when I sell through Amazon. I make money only when people buy directly from my website, because Amazon requires me to track the delivery, and that costs a lot. I’m also thinking of raising the price on the Write My Memoirs Grammar and Writing Course because, at $39, people may undervalue how good the course is. According to Simon, he sold more e-books when he raised the price by a dollar.

5. Study All Types of Books

Simon: Learn how to write a memoir from authors and books in other genres. Read broadly in fiction and other types of nonfiction.

Me: Yes, definitely do this. You’re writing a nonfiction book that reads like a fictional story. You have to write compelling dialogue and descriptive text that paints a picture in the reader’s mind. You’ll see these devices in fiction.

6. “Write to Market”

Simon: If you want to make a living from writing books, eventually you’ll run out of things to write about if you stick to memoirs. You’ll have to branch out to whatever genres are currently popular.

WMM: This depends on the writer’s reasons for writing the memoir. At Write My Memoirs at least, most authors don’t have their sights set on launching a big writing career. You may want to sell your book for a screenplay and get a windfall from a successful movie, but I don’t think most of you are planning to become working book writers. If you are, then I agree with Simon. Consider learning how to write romance or young adult fiction, which are both hot right now.

7. & 8. Don’t Discount Any Potential Reader, and Learn from All Genres

WMM: Confidential to Simon—these two are just repeating #1 and #5. When you want a Top 10 list but have only eight ideas, you twist two of them a little. I recognize this trick. However, you do give two good tips in #8: look at the titles of best-selling fiction. They’re short and snappy, yet still intriguing enough to make people want to see what the book is about. And fictional books have a story with a beginning, middle and end. The book is not just a series of chapters that can stand alone, which is how some memoir writers structure their chapters. Google to discover different story structures.

9. Don’t Assume You Know Your Reader

Simon: You probably think you know which parts of your book people will like best, which scenes are the most compelling and which chapters are funny. But every reader will experience your book differently, and you’ll be surprised at how wrong you were!

WMM: This is so true. Even the articles I write get reactions I never anticipated. You thought that part was funny? THAT line was your favorite? You just never know how people will react. Think about telling a joke to a group. Some people will not be able to stop laughing, and others will look at you with no expression at all.

10. Let Your Writing Bring You Joy

Simon: Joy is what should happen. If writing this book really is not bringing you some level of joy, stop writing.

WMM: I partly agree with this. It’s cathartic to write a memoir, and I suppose catharsis is a form of joy. Even if parts are painful, once you get going the memories pour out of you and provide a relief you may not anticipate. People with a dark story to tell often find that writing it out is the best—or only—way to move forward. But goals have another side. They don’t always bring us joy in the process of accomplishing them. The joy comes afterward. I write constantly. There are times I don’t enjoy the writing, but I always enjoy having written. A piece of writing that you’re proud of? That for sure brings you joy.

If you want to self-publish, please think of our Write My Memoirs publishing services. We’re here for you :).

 

 

Writing Tips: How to Develop Empathy in Your Memoir

Empathy Sign

You probably want people who read your memoir to root for you. Even if the main topic of your memoir does not address something like overcoming hardship, facing tragedy or triumphing over opposition, you most likely want to encourage empathy for yourself. Unless you’re unusually self-critical, telling your story from your point of view will naturally point readers in that direction.

But there also are writing devices you can use. Here are three.

1. Writing Tone: Be Intimate, Raw, Honest, Humble, Authentic

Eliciting empathy from readers is really no different from trying to make new friends. Why do people want to spend time with someone?

You earn empathy from readers not only by the story you tell but also by the way you tell it. Write intimately, as if you’re sitting with just one person and “spilling your guts” to a degree.

Like new friends, readers like nice people. Show your heart! If your journey takes you from being not very nice to becoming a much better person, start your memoir at a more recent period and then jump backwards. That way you’ll let readers know that sticking with your story will pay off, because eventually they’ll like you.

Readers sense authenticity; if they feel phoniness, they’ll doubt your story. If they think you’re outright lying at all? You’re toast.

If readers hear arrogance in your writer’s voice, they’ll turn against you. If you blame others or just bad luck for what you’ve done, they’ll abandon you. Readers will be turned off by a flippant attitude that treats your sins as if they’re less significant than the sins of others. So take accountability for mistakes you’ve made and your own contribution to your troubles.

Expressing true contrition and raw honesty will keep readers on your side. Your tone must demonstrate that you don’t think you’re always right or better than other people.

Writing at the average reader’s level is a good way to get them to relate to your storytelling. If you write down to them, that condescending attitude will probably not sit well with readers. At the other end, writing in highly scholarly language can be tough to slog through and also indicate that you’re not easily relatable to ordinary people.

2. Writing Content: Give Evidence for Empathy

Be careful if your memoir positions you against the world, because the world might just win in your readers’ minds. To encourage empathy, show empathy. Roll out incidents that demonstrate how you empathized with other people.

Include, as well, episodes that show people empathizing with you. Give some play to other people who agreed with you, friends who had your back, relatives who came to the rescue. Explain your reasons behind your actions. Include any “aha” moments you had so that readers can take that ride along with you.

3. Writing Quality: No Sloppiness

Smart readers like smart writing—your memoir must be well-written. Readers do not have to be English professors to spot typos, bad grammar, repetition, hard-to-follow narratives and other errors that indicate poor writing. Even just unsophisticated writing can undermine a good story, because readers might not be able to follow your thoughts.

While you don’t have to be a professional writer, you should have a professional editor look over your work. Little things like paragraph transitions make a big difference in keeping the story flowing and the reader turning pages.

If your writing is poor, readers may feel sorry for you—but sympathy is not empathy. You don’t want readers to pity you; you want them to respect you for the way you handled tough situations and your good times, too. Ultimately, you want readers to enjoy your book—through your challenges, your decisions and your survival. Put them right by your side, and they’ll get it.

How Does an Editor Improve a Memoir?

What does an editor do

Memoir authors wonder whether they need an editor. What do editors even do?

Whether you’re a first-time author or a seasoned, published, top-notch writer, another pair of expert eyes should go over your manuscript for more than a simple proofreading. No matter what your skill level, an editor can polish your work.

Many of our members here at Write My Memoirs are not looking to sell their books. They just want to document their lives and share their perspective of their own experiences in their own voice. Often, it’s just for their family. They can be talented writers, but they’re not professionals, and an editor’s touch can make the difference between an easy, compelling read and a book that just doesn’t sound quite right.

Content facts and flow

An editor reads the manuscript in two ways. The first is as a reader. Does the content make sense? Is there too much? Sometimes authors leave in extraneous information that doesn’t move the story along. Or maybe is there too little? Some things need to be explained. The author can forget that the reader has no information before reading the book. Even if the book is just for family, you should write it for strangers.

If you decide to write your story out of chronological order, can the reader still follow what happened when? Often, the work is generally in chronological order, but the author will go off on tangents that stray into the future in order to finish up about a certain topic. That structure is fine if it’s done skillfully, and an editor will fill in any of that skill gap.

Inexperienced writers can be repetitive, not trusting the reader to remember information that came a few chapters earlier. An editor knows how to remind the reader without retelling. Let’s say a friend from an earlier period of your life shows up again in a much later chapter. Some authors will just give the full name all over again, or “my friend Joe,” without acknowledging that the reader already has been introduced to Joe. An editor will finesse that to remind the reader of the earlier mention.

Authors can rely on their memory and neglect to fact-check. A good editor will look up the spelling of that street in Baltimore or check the date of the eclipse in Minneapolis. If you say in chapter 1 that your sister was born in 1967, and then in chapter 5 you mention that she was 24 when she served as your bridesmaid in 1991, the editor’s mental calculator will check your math.

Grammar, spelling, punctuation

The picky details are probably what you think of when you think of an editor. This is the second way an editor reads your manuscript—more word by word than the sum of the parts. If you believe that your computer’s grammar check and spell check take care of this aspect, any editor will tell you the technology is not as good as a person.

For example, you’ve probably seen a spell-check program underline a person’s unusual name. You ignore it. But if you make a typo in the name the next time you use it, you’ll just see that same underline and ignore that one, too. An editor will spot the inconsistency and ask you which is the correct spelling.

Other considerations like paragraphing and word usage also come under the editor’s discretion. If you use the word “happy” three times in the same paragraph, your editor will change at least one of them. If you use “find” when the better word is “identify,” the editor will fix that. And if your sentences fall into too much passive voice, the editor will suggest ways to turn that into the more interesting active voice.

A good first draft

You are your first editor. Write your draft, and then do your own polishing. You may work on some passages dozens of times before you feel you’ve gotten it right. And we always advise brushing up on the basics and the fine points with our affordable ($39) writing course.

Then, when you feel you’ve done as much with your book as you can, turn it over to an editor. A good editor will make sure to keep your “writer’s voice,” and you’ll be surprised how professional your thoughts, and your voice, can sound.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

It’s Okay to Write for Yourself

I sing a lot. I sing in the typical places—my car, the shower, my kitchen. Most of the time no one hears me sing; those who do tend to be members of my family, and one of them is likely to ask me to stop singing. They are not even polite about it but, to be fair, I should add that my singing voice can be grating. Yet the reviews have not always been a disaster. Although my choir auditions bombed in both grade school and junior high, by high school somehow my voice had become minimally acceptable, and for three years I was a bonafide alto. Ever since then, it’s been back to my car, the shower, my kitchen and a trio of daughters wailing, “Mom, stop!” Fortunately, they now live in their own homes and I get to sing for the simple reason that I enjoy singing. People who enjoy singing get to sing, just as people who enjoy painting get to paint.

Do you enjoy writing? Then you get to write. Writing is something I know from the other end of the talent spectrum. I’ve always had a gift for writing, and then I added degrees and professional experience, so I’m pretty good at writing. When I read other people’s writing, it can be a little like a bad singing voice shattering my ears or a poorly painted picture assaulting my field of vision—but it rarely strikes me that way. Usually I hear passion in the words and authors’ urgency in sharing their thoughts. I can ignore the missing apostrophes, run-on sentences and weirdly used semicolons. I can overlook the favorite word that gets repeated and repeated and the paragraph that really belongs on the previous page. But it doesn’t matter what I think unless the writer asks for my input.

Have you kept a diary or journal that you’ve revealed to not a single other person? You may have written a full memoir that you have no intention of publishing, preferring to keep it in its original notebook or computer file. Or maybe you do take it out of hiding occasionally to show to a spouse or trusted friend. Perhaps you’ve broken off a chapter that stands alone and submitted it somewhere as a short story. But if all you do is reread your own work, your writing is worthwhile. If all you do is write out your thoughts and never bother reviewing them once you’ve had your say—just to yourself—that’s also fine. The writing process is cathartic and creative and endlessly revealing of who you are, and who you are is someone who enjoys writing, so you get to write.

Ideas for Memoir Structure

For many memoir authors, their life story isn’t their first stab at creating some form of art. When those authors decide to write a memoir, it’s natural for them to want to include their other artform. So let’s say you’ve written poetry all your life, or you have a file of newspaper clippings of your op-eds published in your local paper. Maybe you’re a painter or even a composer. Perhaps you have a file full of your essays or you’ve kept a list of favorite quotes by other people. Today, even tweets or Facebook posts could be considered a body of work. Can you incorporate your work or favorites into your memoir? Yes, of course you can.

“Most memoirs read like a book, chapter by chapter with some photos added somewhere,” writes Nancy Julien Kopp in her review of the memoir Wingin’ It Beyond the Veil by Joan Breit. “Ms Breit’s book offers a series of vignettes that give us a slice of her life at a time. Between the vignettes, she has included scripture verses, poetry (both her own and others) and photos. I found all that is included to be delightful and I thoroughly enjoyed piecing her life together via the individual vignettes.”

If you’re a photographer—professional or hobbyist—it’s obvious to picture how you can use your work in your memoir. But through photography you also can share with readers your paintings or a page of musical staff from a song. You can begin each chapter with a pertinent piece of your past writing. You can pepper your memoir with lines of your poems. Sharing yourself as a creatively multifaceted person will bring readers closer to who you feel you are, which is exactly what you want your memoir to communicate.

What You Can Learn From Olivia de Havilland

We all want to own our legacies, but we’re not fully in control of that. The Supreme Court announced yesterday that it would not consider 102-year-old “Gone With the Wind” actress Olivia de Havilland’s claim that a TV show needed her permission to present her likeness and character. The FX miniseries “Feud: Bette and Joan,” was based on the rivalry between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. In it, Catherine Zeta-Jones portrayed de Havilland as somewhat of a gossip, which the elder actress found offensive. The Supreme Court let stand a California appeals court’s decision that de Havilland had no say in how she was depicted in art. The decision read in part: “Whether a person portrayed in one of these expressive works is a world-renowned film star—‘a living legend’—or a person no one knows, she or he does not own history. Nor does she or he have the legal right to control, dictate, approve, disapprove, or veto the creator’s portrayal of actual people.”

You’re probably not famous, and you most likely will not find yourself portrayed as a character in a movie or TV show. But you still could be mentioned in someone’s memoir. Right now, someone who knows you could be writing up an account of your actions. Maybe in that person’s eyes you were the unfair boss, nerdy cousin or mean girl in high school, while you recall a completely different dynamic to the relationship between the two of you. Go to any of the memoir discussions on social media, and a common question is: Should I change the names of the people I include in my memoir? The thing is that changing the name doesn’t necessarily hide the identity. People who know the author are likely to recognize the person whether the name is real or not.

Sometimes these authors will approach the people and ask whether they mind being included in the memoir. If you’re approached, you can always plead with the author not to include you. That may work, or it may not. Sometimes all the author is doing is giving you a little advance notice, but the mention is a done deal. So what can you do? Write your own story. Own your truth. Provide the narrative of your life as you recall it. That way, you’ll at least have your version and, unlike Olivia de Havilland, won’t have to ask the Supreme Court to decide whether you’re a gossip or just a really open person.

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 8: Silence Your Inner Critic

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 8: Silence Your Inner Critic
We’re getting toward the back of the pack here with our look at Writer’s Digest’s 10 rules of writing. We’re all critical of our own work. Should we heed the caution of that inner critic or push “ignore”?
James Scott Bell recommends following this rule. Otherwise, he predicts, “you’ll freeze up.” Take classes, study with a good teacher, practice a lot. But once you’re on course with the piece you’re writing, Bell advises, just “go with the flow and trust what you’ve learned….Write freely; let the characters live and breathe.” But that’s only while you’re writing. After you’ve completed a first draft, Bell says it’s time to take out the red pen and fix the problems. “But when you write, write,” he concludes. “That’s how you truly learn.”
In the opposite corner and taking the position of a realist is John Smolens, who maintains that your “inner editor” is running all the time you’re writing whether you like it or not. With every word, you’re making a choice.
“It’s a matter of perception,” Smolen argues. “Your Inner Editor is there to help you, but too often you behave as though her sole purpose is to ruin your fun and make you sit up straight at the table. Instead, consider her a gentle, benevolent influence, the flashlight in hand as you wend your way down the dark path of each sentence.” Think of your inner critic, he says, as the Word Whisperer.
As usual, I see agreement here more than dissension. You want to give yourself license to write and not be bogged down with doubt at every sentence. But your editor is marching through your head to some degree anyway. I backspace constantly to change a word or a sentence, but I still get a good momentum going. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Your eye becomes sharper as you review your first draft. I think the hard part is finalizing. Eventually, you do have to silence that inner critic or you’ll never finish a “last” draft!

We’re getting toward the back of the pack here with our look at Writer’s Digest’s 10 rules of writing. We’re all critical of our own work. Should memoir writers heed the caution of that inner critic or push “ignore”?

James Scott Bell, a writer and writing teacher, recommends following this rule. Otherwise, he predicts, “you’ll freeze up.” Take classes, study with a good teacher, practice a lot. But once you’re on course with the piece you’re writing, Bell advises, just “go with the flow and trust what you’ve learned….Write freely; let the characters live and breathe.” But that’s only while you’re writing. After you’ve completed a first draft, Bell says it’s time to take out the red pen and fix the problems. “But when you write, write,” he concludes. “That’s how you truly learn.”

In the opposite corner and taking the position of a realist is novelist John Smolens, who maintains that your “inner editor” is running all the time you’re writing whether you like it or not. With every word, you’re making a choice.

“It’s a matter of perception,” Smolen argues. “Your Inner Editor is there to help you, but too often you behave as though her sole purpose is to ruin your fun and make you sit up straight at the table. Instead, consider her a gentle, benevolent influence, the flashlight in hand as you wend your way down the dark path of each sentence.” Think of your inner critic, he says, as the Word Whisperer.

As usual, I see agreement here more than dissension. You want to give yourself license to write and not be bogged down with doubt at every sentence. But your editor is marching through your head to some degree anyway. I backspace constantly to change a word or a sentence, but I still get a good momentum going. I don’t think it has to be one or the other. Your eye becomes sharper as you review your first draft. I think the hard part is finalizing. Eventually, you do have to silence that inner critic or you’ll never finish a “last” draft!

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 7: Develop a Thick Skin

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 7: Develop a Thick Skin
Of the rules we’ve critiqued thus far in this series devoted to evaluating the writing rules that Writer’s Digest asked a panel to comment upon, Rule 7—“develop a thick skin”—is even more critical to memoir writers than fiction and other nonfiction authors. After all, you’re laying it out for all to see—your lifelong behavior and thoughts.
Author Steve Almond agrees with this rule. He says, “The key to making it as a writer—as any sort of artist, actually—is developing the capacity to question your decisions without succumbing to the opera of self-doubt. You have to recognize criticism and rejection as a necessary step in the process. Being thin-skinned (i.e., defensive, resentful, arrogant) is not an option.” No matter how you react privately—tears, resentment, anger—ultimately you should calm down and consider the criticism because it can help you. “If nine out of ten readers think your opening page is confusing or your plot never goes anywhere,” Almond continues, “they are almost certainly right.”
Writer and writing teacher Sheila Bender thinks there’s a way to break this rule and still tease out the critiques that will help you polish your writing. You won’t need a thick skin if you ask your test readers for specific feedback: 1) “Ask trusted readers to let you know what words and phrases linger,” she recommends. “It’s easier to listen to what isn’t working when your readers have proved they were listening.” 2) Ask readers about the feelings they get from reading your story. They can express good feelings or say something such as feeling confused. 3) Translate any negative comments into helpful language for yourself. Bender says you should think of “too wordy” as “I feel overwhelmed here instead of clear about what is going on.” Accept “incoherent” as “something seems to have been skipped over; I miss knowing what it is.” And think of “awkward” as “I miss the writer’s voice.” With these “translations,” you can revise your work without feeling resentment toward your test readers.
Despite Bender’s advice to break this rule, when you do what she advises you are developing a thick skin. Accepting criticism in a way that helps you to learn and improve is the whole point of the rule. Don’t develop a thick skin in a way that lets comments roll off your back without bothering you. You do need to take readers’ comments seriously. But don’t take them personally. Understand that all writers need editors. For a memoir in particular, you will be dealing with criticism not only of your writing style but of the content itself. Some people you include in your story will not want to be there. They may get angry at you. But only you can decide whether to respect their point of view or write your life story the way you want to write it, despite what others may say.
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

Of the rules we’ve critiqued thus far in this series devoted to evaluating the writing rules that Writer’s Digest asked a panel to comment upon, Rule 7—“develop a thick skin”—is even more critical to memoir writers than fiction and other nonfiction authors. After all, you’re laying it out for all to see—your lifelong behavior and thoughts.

Author Steve Almond agrees with this rule. He says, “The key to making it as a writer—as any sort of artist, actually—is developing the capacity to question your decisions without succumbing to the opera of self-doubt. You have to recognize criticism and rejection as a necessary step in the process. Being thin-skinned (i.e., defensive, resentful, arrogant) is not an option.” No matter how you react privately—tears, resentment, anger—ultimately you should calm down and consider the criticism because it can help you. “If nine out of ten readers think your opening page is confusing or your plot never goes anywhere,” Almond continues, “they are almost certainly right.”

Writer and writing teacher Sheila Bender thinks there’s a way to break this rule and still tease out the critiques that will help you polish your writing. You won’t need a thick skin if you ask your test readers for specific feedback: 1) “Ask trusted readers to let you know what words and phrases linger,” she recommends. “It’s easier to listen to what isn’t working when your readers have proved they were listening.” 2) Ask readers about the feelings they get from reading your story. They can express good feelings or say something such as feeling confused. 3) Translate any negative comments into helpful language for yourself. Bender says you should think of “too wordy” as “I feel overwhelmed here instead of clear about what is going on.” Accept “incoherent” as “something seems to have been skipped over; I miss knowing what it is.” And think of “awkward” as “I miss the writer’s voice.” With these “translations,” you can revise your work without feeling resentment toward your test readers.

Despite Bender’s advice to break this rule, when you do what she advises you are developing a thick skin. Accepting criticism in a way that helps you to learn and improve is the whole point of the rule. Don’t develop a thick skin in a way that lets comments roll off your back without bothering you. You do need to take readers’ comments seriously. But don’t take them personally. Understand that all writers need editors. For a memoir in particular, you will be dealing with criticism not only of your writing style but of the content itself. Some people you include in your story will not want to be there. They may get angry at you. But only you can decide whether to respect their point of view or write your life story the way you want to write it, despite what others may say.

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 6: Kill Your Darlings

Critique of Traditional Writing Rules, Part 6: Kill Your Darlings
Continuing this series of “critiquing the critics” of 10 widely accepted rules of writing identified by Writer’s Digest, we’re up to rule 6, which is difficult to apply to a memoir. The rule, “kill your darlings,” advises writers to be careful about including anything that doesn’t really belong in your book. These rules, though, address fiction, and this one applies to furthering the plot and developing characters. If you’re not doing either of those, even if that passage is one of your favorite “darlings,” maybe you should let it go. But you’re not writing fiction; you’re writing a memoir. Your life doesn’t follow a script or plot line.
Even regarding fiction, writer and writing commentator N.M. Kelby argues both sides of the issue. On one hand, she suggests, “Think of your work as a producer thinks of a film. Words are like money. Spend them wisely. Each scene and actor is expensive, and so you must include only what you really need to tell your tale. And if you find yourself saying, ‘But I love this idea!’ that should be the first thing to become suspect.”
Then on the other hand, Kelby finds reasons for breaking this rule. “This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire,” she says. “We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom.”
I have to agree with breaking this rule. Don’t throw in every boring detail of your life. Sometimes the off-the-topic paragraphs or chapters become readers’ favorite parts. Your thoughts and some minor events that you think are special should go in there if you think that your grandchildren and other readers will be interested in hearing about them. Memoirs are for posterity even more than for entertainment.
http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/writing-rules-10-experts-take-on-the-writers-rulebook

Continuing this series of “critiquing the critics” of 10 widely accepted rules of writing identified by Writer’s Digest, we’re up to rule 6, which is difficult to apply to a memoir. The rule, “kill your darlings,” advises writers to be careful about including anything that doesn’t really belong in your book. These rules, though, address fiction, and this one applies to furthering the plot and developing characters. If a sentence or more does neither of those, even if that passage is one of your favorite “darlings,” maybe you should let it go. But you’re not writing fiction; you’re writing a memoir. Your life doesn’t follow a script or plot line.

Even regarding fiction, writer and writing commentator N.M. Kelby argues both sides of the issue. On one hand, she suggests, “Think of your work as a producer thinks of a film. Words are like money. Spend them wisely. Each scene and actor is expensive, and so you must include only what you really need to tell your tale. And if you find yourself saying, ‘But I love this idea!’ that should be the first thing to become suspect.”

Then on the other hand, Kelby finds reasons for breaking this rule. “This approach to editing is the most dangerous tool in your repertoire,” she says. “We write for the beauty of the well-turned phrase and the surprise of unexpected wisdom.”

I have to agree with breaking this rule. Sometimes the off-the-topic paragraphs or chapters become readers’ favorite parts. Don’t throw in every boring detail of your life, but your thoughts and some minor events that you think are special should go in there if you think that your grandchildren and other readers will be interested in hearing about them. Memoirs are for posterity even more than for entertainment.