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AUTUMN VOICES MEMOIR WRITING 3

 MEMOIR PART THREE – Wrapping up

  In the final part of this series about memoir writing I’m going to answer a few popular questions that have come my way recently. I hope you find the information useful. 

Q1.  Can you write more than one memoir?

  1.   Definitely. Imagine your life is a big, juicy apple pie. You’ve cut it into six pieces but not all of those pieces will have perfect pastry or an even distribution of apples. Attribute themes relevant to your life. They might include:- 
  • Crossing the Gobi desert ( adventure)
  • Meeting my soul mate ( love and romance)
  • Surviving five redundancies.  ( resilience) 
  • Learning to paraglide, aged 80 ( daring)
  • How I fought a deadly disease ( inspirational) 
  • Living in a van post- divorce ( misery/exciting) 

 You can do this as a real exercise before you start your memoir (be it first, second or third). If you are hoping to be published, here are a few pertinent points you need to consider. 

  • Is there enough solid information to put in a memoir? (  60K words minimum required for commercial publication)
  • Which theme are you most passionate about? This will set the tone of your book. If living in a van was full of misery with few bright spots, then you might want to avoid that one. Misery memoirs such as Angela’s Ashes were very popular 10-15 years ago, but I think we’re all “miseried” out. 
  • Publishers and agents have been inundated with stories about battling the corona virus and surviving lockdown in remote parts of the British Isles. As I understand it, they are not encouraging any more. I’m afraid to say this applies to fighting illness stories and surviving impoverished childhoods. To be taken on the writing has to be so powerful it compels the agent to read beyond the first page. (More on agents shortly).
  • Out of the above selection, I’d go for the redundancy survival theme. We all want to know how people triumph over adversity. Redundancy is a threatening spectre which hovers over thousands of lives at this time. I really wished I’d talked more to my father about his memories of the 1930s and written his story. 
  • Finally, readers never seem to tire of war stories. 

Q2.     How do you get the reader gripped by your story?

          By making you and your supporting cast credible people. We all behave badly at times or do the unexpected. This is what makes us human. Let’s say you crossed the Gobi desert in 1950 alone. You might want to portray yourself as fearless, ready to take on a bear, or brave the icy cold nights when in reality most of the time you were terrified and wanted to go home.  Write down these feelings and how they contrasted with the times your trip was so endorphin infused you vowed to spend the rest of your life as a goat herder. Take your reader on an emotional journey so that they feel they are walking alongside you. 

Q3.  I’ve done some terrible things in my life. It is best to avoid them in my memoir? 

  1. Join the club. If you are confessing to murder, then I suggest the police station because you don’t want to die with that on your conscience. Facetiousness aside, I’ve confessed to stealing a bar of chocolate from a corner shop when I was five. It was a dare.  I got smacked legs and had to pay the shop keeper back out of my birthday money. I blush when I think about it. We all make mistakes from which we learn a hard lesson. If your “terrible things” are relevant to your story, then think carefully about how to write them. It might be a question of prefacing with - This is shocking admission, but I slept with the milkman in the end.  Maybe it was the hazelnut yoghurts he delivered every Friday that made him so attractive, but I mustn’t blame him. It solely my doing, and I bitterly regret it. Confessionals are another form of memoir but do be careful. You could end up with a divorce or a death threat. 

  Q4.  How do I get published?

The Big Question. Well, these days you can self-publish. I’ve done it twice with the help of a very reputable company but it wasn’t necessary. I could have easily done it myself and saved the formatting costs. If you’re looking for a publisher, there are a number of excellent independent publishers who are listed in the Writers and Artists Yearbook. Many of them, however, specialise in commercial fiction: romance, crime and psychological thrillers. They are sold for £1.99 on kindle ( more for paperback) and are designed to get readers hooked on that author. I haven’t seen many looking to publish memoir.

 If you are really serious, then you need an agent. Again, you can find a long list of UK agents in the above mentioned yearbook. Sort through them carefully and make sure they are interested in memoir. Check what they’ve already published. See if they are a match for your work and personality. Their biographies help with this. 

 Read their submission requirements VERY CAREFULLY and follow them to the letter. If not, they will not read your work. This is because they are inundated with so many submissions, you have to stand out above all others. 

 It’s hard work and requires dedication. That said, memoirs are becoming very popular these days as discerning readers are on the hunt for authentic stories. Our age gives us an advantage and we shouldn’t be knocking off the years to sound/look/appear more sexy. (Hey, you can be sexy at seventy!)

 I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this mini-series, and I do hope it’s been of benefit and even entertaining. Thank you to Robin and Autumn Voices for giving me the opportunity to share my ideas. 

 My memoir, Chasing Peacocks, is out on submission to six agents, the recommended amount or the first tranche. I could wait up to 12 weeks for the rejection! But, we must be positive. I’m confident I have an impactful and unique story, and if nobody wants to pick it up, I shall be privately printing 12 copies for family and friends in hardback with a glorious peacock cover. Not everything is valued in £.s.d. ☺ 

Angelena Boden.  

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AUTUMN VOICES MEMOIR WRITING 2

Memoir Writing Part Two

How reliable is your memory?

  I’ve been blessed with a photographic memory, but that doesn’t mean that I can recall every detail as absolute truth, especially now as my brain is getting tired.     Short term memory problems hit all of us at some point – I recognise that face, but I can’t remember his name for toffee- so it’s a good thing that memoir writing relies more on our long term memory which is often much sharper. 

That said, can we really recall conversations from the past, word for word? Did that bat really get tangled in our hair, and we screamed the belfry down? Probably not. It felt like it at the time. My point is that a memoir is always emotionally true but not always factually accurate. Telling the unvarnished truth is no mean feat, but you can’t call your book a memoir if much of it is fabricated.  That’s a novel.

Your opening paragraph

 Memoir writing is not a list of bullet points linked by conjunctions. I did this, then I did that.  It is an emotional piece of writing which begins with the opening paragraph.  The reader needs to be drawn into your story through a strong sense of place, a conflict, and a commitment to the central character, (you). The most compelling memoirs are written in a strong narrative style – like a novel. 

 To give you an example, here is the opening paragraph of my memoir, Chasing Peacocks, which is now on submission.

 September 1976

A strong whiff of curry made my nose twitch the moment I wound down the window of my Hillman Imp. I’d bought the idiosyncratic little car on impulse for sixty pounds. I loved its quirkiness: engine at the back and the boot at the front, but the gurgling that emanated from it when out on the open road was a sure sign its dancing days would soon be over. I felt my heart skip a beat. When that day came, it would be like losing a friend. 

    A woman in a pink sari ambled past the shabby Victorian semi to my right which was to be my new home. Double checking the address against my piece of paper, I inwardly groaned. I couldn’t imagine spending four hours in that place, never mind four years of study required for my Modern Languages degree. 

 Some questions for you to ponder.

  • What is the mood of this opening chapter? How was this created?
  • Does it really matter how I felt about my little, old car? Does it add anything to the story, or does it get in the way? 
  • The lady was wearing a pink sari, but could I have made it a different colour, or outfit or even a different lady. Why might she be so important so early on in the story? 
  • Where do you think this book is set?
  • Would you want to read on?’

  Suppose I adopted this style.

  I arrived in Xtown, and the first thing I noticed a strong smell of curry. It was one food I didn’t like. My car was old and I doubted it would last much longer. I sat in the driving seat for a few minutes, and studied the Victorian semi- detached house with its rotting window frames and neglected garden, wishing I’d been offered a place at Edinburgh University. 

  • How is this different? Which do you prefer? 
  • I haven’t mentioned the Indian lady. Does the story lose anything important?
  • Would you want to read on?

 Most of my memoir is true, but on occasions I have partly fictionalised events by merging them together and adding a few frills. Here’s an example.

Later that evening, Roya brought me a tall glass of cucumber juice with crushed ice made especially for me from sterilised water. She plumped the cushions behind my head and helped me to sit up, offering me a sympathetic smile.

  ‘What’s Minu doing?’ I asked.

 ‘Oh, she’s fine. Following Maman round with a cloth.’ She paused while she swatted away a mosquito. ‘You’ve got to be better by next Friday. It’s your big day.’

  ‘What big day? I don’t understand.’

  ‘Have you forgotten? You’re getting married Persian style.’

  This is written as a filler between two key sections. Roya didn’t bring me anything to drink but I needed to show that she could be kind when she wanted to be. Minu was very unhappy being in Iran and wasn’t fine at all. The actual truth in this little section is the reference to the Persian wedding. 

 These mini inventions are included to help balance the book which is grim in parts. Life writing is messy and often lacks a narrative arc. We think back on how we were treated by certain people, and their deeds become overshadowed by our emotional reactions to them. 

 We end up with too much material, and if we really must include Aunt Fanny’s cat, but have a long debate about whether it was ginger or tabby, the reader loses the plot.  What we don’t want to do is fill our memoir with invention and exaggeration like James Frey, in A Million Little Pieces.

 So, how far can you go? 

  • Create accurate enough dialogue which flows without vanishing into the realms of fantasy. ‘Oh my darling, you are like rosehip syrup on biscotti.’ Apologies to anyone who might have said this to their sweetheart. 
  • We can add a little fluff to the facts providing we are not making up something ridiculous. I was held hostage by my husband’s family in Iran. That might seem outrageous, but it’s true. If you weren’t captured by the Taliban or invited to dinner with Kim Jon Un, then don’t include that in your memoir! 
  • Always, always use the raw data for your narrative even if that means adding some trimmings to it to make it more compelling. If you can’t do that, then write a novel based on your experiences.

   Whilst my memoir is mainly true, I’ve added this as an introduction to the book to cover myself and protect the people involved. 

 Chasing Peacocks is a novel based on the author’s lived experience with her Persian boyfriend whom she married three times in separate ceremonies to comply with their respective laws. 

 They meet prior to the outbreak of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 which forced the incumbent Shah to abandon the “Peacock Throne” thus ending the 2,500 year long Pahlavi dynasty. The events and time line are accurate, the characters’ names have been changed, but some events have been merged for the sake of length. 

 If you have any questions about memoir writing, I would be happy to take them. Maybe we could set up a session on Zoom to share ideas? Let me know if that appeals.

  In the meantime, stay alert, and keep writing. 

  

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AUTUMN VOICES MEMOIR WRITING

ARE YOU THINKING OF WRITING A MEMOIR?

Hello

 I hope you are all well, and finding creative ways to enrich your life, as we tumble through these strange and alarming times. I’m finding it a challenge to stick to my daily writing routine, partly because I’ve been unwell, but mostly because my concentration is poor. 

 My current work-in-progress is a memoir, as yet, untitled. Not to be confused with autobiography, a memoir focuses on a key aspect of life, one that has had a deep impact. It might be a pivotal point which changes a perspective on the world, a heart-warming story about triumph over adversity, or an epic adventure of escape. Memoir, or life-writing, provides us with an opportunity to analyse and reflect, and in some cases, come to terms with old grievances and pain. 

 It’s becoming a popular genre, as proved by the plethora of personal mental health and bereavement stories, some of which are ranking on the best seller lists. This squashes the naysayers who are quick to tell you that it is only the lives of celebrities that will attract the interest of agents and publishers. I’m a glutton for stories written by ordinary people from all walks of life; doctors, hairdressers, recovering alcoholics. My current read is “The Last Act of Love” by Cathy Rentzenbrink. The author is taking me on a highly emotional journey, leaving me breathless and reaching for the tissues. 

My memoir spans twenty plus years. It covers my tumultuous life with my Iranian husband, before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It culminates at the point when on a visit to his family, he held me and our children hostage. Obviously, it is written solely through my eyes and no matter how accurate I’ve tried to be, I can only be honest and true to a point.  The dialogue is manufactured from fragments of remembered conversations powered by overwhelming feelings that continue to haunt me to this day. In my next blog, I’ll talk about how close to the truth do we need to be. 

 So, let’s start with a few pointers. 

 The Beginning

If you’ve been drafting ideas for your story, but are scratching your head for the opening, I’d say, don’t start at the beginning. The best memoirs don’t tell their stories chronologically, which is what I did in the first draft of mine. This meant rewriting the first few chapters.  Memoirs are written like novels. They need to be compelling, pacey and full of tension to keep the reader hooked. We need to travel the road alongside you, feeling what you felt, rooting for your success and empathising with your struggles.  Begin with a life-changing moment, then work backwards filling in the blanks.  

 Timelines

 You may think you can sit down and write your life story without pausing for breath because you know it so well. I didn’t spend time on a well thought out timeline and this has given my editor some real headaches. It can also result in babies having a two year gestation (my poor daughter), coming back from a place three months before going, just to give you a couple of howlers.  It’s easier if you are covering a short period of time, but even then, you need to be clear in your mind about the sequence of events. Readers will pick you up on it. Draw your time line first with bullet points of key events. 

  Too many people

  Take the same approach when it comes to selecting your supporting cast. Your hairdresser might have been your best confidante during a marriage breakdown, but will a dialogue with him/her move the story along?  Sometimes you can blend characters into one. I have done this with my husband’s two sisters. They carried out very similar roles in the book and as Iranian families are large, I had to collapse my interaction between various members to avoid confusion, and to keep the book tight. You could say I’ve added a fictional character to a true story, but memoirists use fiction techniques all the time. When it comes to approaching publishers you have to be truthful about this. You can say that your book is based on your true story for the purposes of protecting certain family members, colleagues and friends.

  Choose your characters with care and make sure they earn their keep!

 Backdrop and backstory

  Without padding out your story with too much exposition, you can add texture and colour to your memoir by dropping in descriptive snippets of places, impressions, your likes and dislikes, thoughts and fears. Make sure you keep the narrative moving.   If memoir is about reminiscing, it makes sense to slip back in time to compare, contrast, and reflect.  I do a lot of philosophising in my book, and make the odd reference to the wisdom of the Persian poets, Rumi and Omar Khayyam, not to be pretentious, but to add a depth to my explanation of how ancient culture influences the thinking of the modern Iranian. It helps give the story depth and most readers like to feel they’ve learned something new. 

But, it’s not all about you.

  Memoir is obviously about you, but the ubiquitous “I” can become wearing for readers, especially in consecutive sentences.  Unless you’re writing about your life as a hermit, avoid starting too many sentences with I. My first edit threw up hundreds of such sentences, so it was rethink, cut, rephrase. You can use the find feature on your word programme to hunt down those annoying duplicates! 

 Who are you writing for?

 Maybe this question should be at the beginning. Memory writing can be for a legacy – something to pass down to your descendants. Many printing companies offer an inexpensive service to format your book, design a cover and print however many copies you desire. You might be writing to heal your heart – a cathartic experience, and want to keep it a secret, or maybe to honour someone’s life.  Make yourself a cuppa and consider your reasons for writing a memoir. 

Publish and be damned?

 Not so fast. Think about the consequences. Who will be hurt, upset, angry or even threaten legal action. If you’re writing to get revenge, then stop and think again. It’s not worth it. Sensationalism sells, but I won’t sell my soul, or my story, if I have to compromise my integrity.

 Since emotion is the driving force of a well-written memoir, try this short exercise. Write 200 words about a time you were overcome with emotion. What happened? When did it happen? Where were you? With whom?  How did you feel? 

Stay safe. Stay well. 

Angelena Boden 

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A story of how my grandfather built his shop on stilts to avoid floods and his role as queen in the annual carnival. 

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