Before I start the post, just want to let you know that I’m going to be at a library in Irving, Texas, on Saturday, October 12th. You can find details on the website. I’ll be there to talk about my historical novel, Dave at Night, but I’m sure I’ll take questions about anything. I hope some of you can make it, and please let me know that you read about the event here.
In August, Abby wrote in to the website with this: ...I am aiming to write a book on myself. I have a very interesting background, being a traveling homeschooler, being a regular school-going kid, living in two different countries at different times. I feel like I have so much to share, but I honestly don't know where to start. I love writing poems, though I don't read much of poems. I TOTALLY love reading books. How do you think I should start my journey of writing a book?
And just so you know, I already write a lot. My creative juices are flowing. I'm becoming a writer, regular blogger and I write journals and poems.
In my answer I wrote, I haven't done much memoir writing, although there are snippets in WRITING MAGIC, or much autobiographical fiction, but I've written two related posts. To find them, click on "writing from life" on the right. Also, I think you should read memoirs and autobiographical fiction, which a librarian or a bookstore salesperson will help you find.
I’d also suggest you look at some travel writing books, not guidebooks, but travel writing as literature. Again, a librarian or bookstore salesperson should be able to help.
I’m glad you called writing a book a journey. I’d say it’s a trip on a slow boat or on foot. Books aren’t written at rocket-ship speed, except during NaNoWriMo (coming up soon), and even then there’s revision afterward. So you seem to have the first element down. Patience is the most important virtue a writer needs.
I just googled the difference between autobiography and memoir and found this link, which you may find helpful: http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/knowing-the-difference-between-an-autobiography-an.html. And here’s a link to a Wikipedia article about memoir: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memoir. I looked at a few more links and gleaned that memoir uses more of the strategies of fiction than autobiography does. I’m guessing here, but I suspect that retelling a conversation in autobiography, for example, would have to be exact. In memoir who said what can be filtered through the memoirist’s memory.
When you start, don’t worry about beginning in the right place. The most important thing is to put something down. You can figure out what goes where later. Of course, in a memoir the beginning may wind up being the earliest chronological point. Or not, depending on what you eventually decide gets the narrative going.
In my earlier posts I mentioned the short story I wrote for a collection of stories and memoirs about grandmothers, called In My Grandmother’s House, which seems to be out of print and hard to find. I also contributed a memoir piece to a collection that is still be available, called Thanks and Giving. My grandmother story was fictionalized, but the family in the story was mine, minus my sister; the unpleasant grandmother and aunts were definitely mine. The main character was a slightly more outspoken version of me. The memory in the Thanks and Giving story was true to the facts as I remember them, although I was very young at the time.
In both I regarded myself as a character and not a perfect being - I was flawed. I criticized my grandmother in one; in the other, I destroyed an expensive doll. Whether you’re writing autobiography or memoir, you need to become character-like. The reader has to engage, must find herself in you, and you have to be sympathetic. That I was flawed was fine. Nobody identifies with a Mary Sue.
How to achieve that empathy?
We need tension, maybe not as much as in fiction, but some. For example, you might include your worries, if you had any, when you moved to foreign countries. If things didn’t always go well, readers will want the details. And details in any kind of writing bring experience to life.
If something funny happens, please share. Details are essential here, too, to set up the situation and ensure that the reader gets the joke.
Your thoughts and feelings, negative as well as positive, are also essential. The reader walks in our MC’s shoes when he enters her mind and heart. Same for the narrator of a memoir.
Naturally, there will be other real people in a memoir. If any of them are also flawed, you may need to consider hurt feelings. I go into this in more detail in my other posts, but you may want to start by talking to those involved and telling them what you’re doing.
I once heard a children’s book author say in a speech that she learns by being surprised, which struck me as true. An unexpected fact lingers in my memory. For example, when I wrote my historical fantasy, Ever, I read up on ancient Mesopotamia. When I looked into medical practices way back then, I discovered that a physician, on the way to a patient, would look for omens that would help him make a diagnosis - before he even saw the sick person! I’ll never forget that. If something astonished you, it will likely surprise your reader, too. Don’t leave it out.
Likewise, what interests you will probably interest your reader. Another example: Disney sent me to Japan to promote Fairy Dust and the Quest for the Egg. Before I went I asked for help bridging the culture gap, and Disney set me up with a consultant. Here in the U. S., when I promote a book I’m expected to say good things about it - that’s the purpose of promotion, right? But the consultant told me to be careful about that in Japan where anything that smacks of boasting is frowned upon. I had to find ways of talking about the book with humility. It was fascinating! (And I learned that it’s perfectly acceptable to eat sushi with your fingers.)
• When I researched my historical novel Dave at Night, I read about early automobiles and learned that carriage companies commonly made the auto bodies. Think Cinderella’s pumpkin coach with an engine. The driver’s seat in an early chauffeured limousine was lower than the passenger seats, and short chauffeurs were preferred so that the gentry who rode in these cars would appear bigger and more important. Write a story about a character who is desperate to break into high society in a fantasy world that makes these kinds of obvious, even physical, class distinctions.
• Pick a character from one of your stories and make him or her the MC in an anecdote from your own life. After the incident gets going, let the MC take the story in a fictional direction.
• I don’t know if this is still true, but when I was in school teachers loved to assign “My Summer Vacation” as a September essay topic. So let’s revive the practice if it’s fallen out of use. Write a memoir piece about your summer. Look for the tense times, the disappointments, the crazy jokes, the near-drownings. Make yourself into a character readers will identify with. If you had the dullest summer in world history, fictionalize! Invent the near-drownings!
Have fun, and save what you write!