5 Tips for Writing a Memoir

From Publishers Weekly Daily | Dec 05, 2014

5 Tips for Writing a Memoir

Will Boast’s standout memoir Epilogue is about the death of his mother, father, and brother. Both a wrenching exploration of grief and a moving story of remembrance, it’s a must-read. Boast shares five rules for writing memoirs.

By Will Boast

As I suspect many writers do, I took the long way round to writing a memoir. It took me nearly three years of trying to cram my subject matter into a novel manuscript before I understood that the story I wanted to tell would fit better into nonfiction. When I finally I came to the memoir form, I had only a vague notion of how such a book might be put together. It took me another five years to finish the manuscript that became Epilogue. As provisional and context-specific as they may be, here are a few lessons I learned along the way:

1. If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of selection and arrangement.

For whatever reasons, many readers and writers believe that writing a memoir is easier than writing a novel. It’s all happened already, the thinking seems to go, so all you have to do is put it on the page. If only! As I once heard Joyce Carol Oates remark, beginning a memoir is like having a dump truck pull up beside you and tip a couple tons of garbage on your head. Writing about your own life or family, everything suddenly seems relevant, from the most dramatic events to the smallest ephemera. I know I’m not the only writer to have drafted hundreds more pages than I needed, writing out whole episodes—many of them revealing, earth-shaking, of the utmost vital importance, etc.—that I would eventually just cut, realizing that they didn’t add to the narrative emerging from the morass of pages I was accumulating. I think it took me a year, at least, before I stopped suffocating under all the stuff that goes into memoir and started to find, among the debris, the struts and beams that would form the structure of a story.

2. Memoir is the most flexible of forms, out of necessity.

Chronology is perhaps the least useful organizing principle in memoir. As Sven Birkerts argues in his The Art of Time in Memoir (one of the few good critical texts on memoir), the relentless “and then and then” method of storytelling is not only particularly numbing in nonfiction, it tends to obscure the essential truth of an experience. Life rarely, if ever, bothers to present us with a tidy series of events that, with a steadily increasing sense of tension and/or mystery, suddenly resolves into understanding, triumph, release, etc. Life, in other words, is not much of a storyteller. It’s the memoirist’s task to create connections—emotional, thematic—between episodes. For me, this meant splicing together two parallel timelines, echoing and rhyming events in the recent and distant past, showing the repetition of patterns of behavior over years and decades. This taught me something rather chilling: A life is often made up of the same mistakes made over and over again.

3. Sympathy is perhaps the trickiest thing to manage in memoir.

It’s often said of the best memoirs that they “read like a novel.” Putting aside the chauvinism for the novel and against the memoir implied here, I would more or less agree: I’m often hard pressed to distinguish between the pleasures of reading a good memoir and a good autobiographical novel. But the memoir, of course, has one very important feature: We know that the author lived the experiences he writes about, so we worry both about the “character” on the page and the actual person in life. The temptation for the writer, then, is to milk that sympathy and concern for all it’s worth. There are two sorts of memoirs I really can’t stand: those that make the writer out to be heroic and perfect, and those that make him out to be tragic and debased. I believe the reader responds best to an author/narrator/main character who conceives of himself modestly and honestly, who is not asking for admiration or forgiveness but merely trying to tell some provisional truth. To quote Mary Karr, “The memoir’s antagonist has to be some part of the self.” If we don’t see the writer struggling with his better and worse nature, proceeding sometimes nobly and sometimes blindly and foolishly, then there’s no conflict and, in the end, no book.

4. Memory is mysterious and fallible, but not as much as we fear.

The question I’ve heard most on book tour: “How did you remember it all?” There can be a tinge of both wonderment and skepticism in the question. How, after all, do we remember, from a distance of decades, the small details and exact words of dialogue that eventually form a scene in a memoir? Well, I know that, for me, there are certain moments and conversations that are scorched into memory. I couldn’t forget them if I wanted to, and I’ve wanted to forget many of them. They are not so much part of the past as they are the ongoing present, following me through each new experience, illuminating and darkening life in equal measure. (This is the nature of trauma—it can never stay in the past.) But, okay, yes, there are some moments I remember fuzzily, for which I had to consult family members, friends, and old letters. But these, of course, are also fallible sources; very few of us remember or record events perfectly and without bias. The salient metaphor for me is archeology; excavating the past is like finding an old clay pot at a dig, piecing it together one shard at a time until it starts to suggest a whole. A memoir aspires to be a recreation of events not a transcript, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get very close to the truth indeed. My biggest surprise on book tour: Meeting up with old friends and classmates who remember things just the way I do.

5. Memoirs, unlike novels, don’t end.

This is the strangest, eeriest thing about nonfiction. Unless there’s a sequel, the characters in a novel don’t go on after the last page. In memoir, they do—those who are still with us anyway. And so this most self-aware, self-reflexive of forms keeps on commenting on itself, attaching new codas and footnotes to each chapter, and subtly re-writing the words you’ve labored so hard to make definitive. Epilogue is in part about discovering, back in 2004, family members I never knew existed. In the course of writing the book, I thought I’d uncovered all the secrets my family contained. Then, in 2013, just as I was finishing the book, another new family member found me. I hope to meet her, for the first time, some time in the next few months. A new epilogue to Epilogue? The story, no matter what I do, keeps on changing.

Publishers Weekly
publishers weekly daily | dec 5 2014

© PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Paul Krugman: Amazon Has Too Much Power

From Publisher’s Weekly comes this:

Amazon’s ongoing dispute with the Hachette Book group over e-book sales terms seems to have turned into a litmus test on publishing in the digital era. It has also shone a brighter-than-usual light on Amazon itself, prompting a number of stories questioning the company’s size, and approach to doing business. Now New York Times columnist and Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has waded into the battle, declaring without reservation that Amazon “has too much power” and that the company “uses that power in ways that hurt America.”

Read more here.

Paul Krugman: Amazon Has Too Much Power.

Amazon’s new all-you-can-eat plan to devour the book business – Salon.com

It’s hard to see from here, but the outcome of this will cost someone something. Will it be in creator royalties, like the Spotify / Pandora model? Will authors avoid or increase their books on Amazon through CreateSpace? What will happen to the relationship between Ingram and Amazon? One thing is for sure, this is not a purely given “gift” to consumers.

Amazon’s new all-you-can-eat plan to devour the book business – Salon.com.

On building a “tribe”

Seth Goddin’s blog today references the difference between two forms of building an audience. My generation calls this “community.” The internet generation calls this a “tribe.” Problem is, in the translation this has included new media marketing — and we all know that internet marketing is fast, furious, and urgent. Seth sorts this back out. Isn’t he saying we need to focus on building community?

Secrets to DIY Pitching From Guy Kawasaki

Secrets to DIY Pitching From Guy Kawasaki

I receive a pitch a day to review or blurb books, and it’s depressing to see how clueless most of these pitches are. This section explains how to make effective pitches to reviewers and bloggers. Step one is to build a relationship before you need it.

* Get a referral. If you haven’t met the person, try to get a referral from someone who knows both of you. LinkedIn is useful to make this kind of connection if it’s within one generation-that is, a friend of a friend as opposed to a friend of a friend of a friend.

* Go to events. The best relationships start by meeting people in person, so go to networking events and work the crowd. Take it from someone who knows, it’s much harder to turn down someone you’ve met in person. One of the most target-rich events is SXSW Interactive; it’s held every March in Austin, Texas, if you can make it.

* Circle/like/follow them on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. Many people pay strict attention to who has circled/liked/followed them, so it’s helpful to do this to get on the radar of bloggers and reviewers.

* Comment on their Google+, Facebook, Twitter, or blog post. They also read all the comments on their posts, so place something there that’s positive, helpful, and insightful.

* Share/retweet their posts/tweets. Finally, reviewers and bloggers notice who has spread their posts and tweets, so do this for the posts/tweets that you like. The process is all about their getting familiar with your name.

Don’t misunderstand: you need to suck up, but you need to suck up with subtlety. All these activities lead us to step two: making contact via e-mail.

* Aim. Contact only people who cover your genre of book by doing research on their previous reviews. For example, don’t pitch your science-fiction book to a romance blogger. And ensure that your recipient reviews books-not every blogger and journalist does.

* Personalize. Never begin an e-mail with “Dear Reviewer” or anything that indicates you don’t know the person’s name. Don’t even bother sending the e-mail if you don’t know the person’s name. You’re doomed if you are this lazy anyway.

You should customize the body of your pitch, too, even though most of your pitch is the same for everyone. For example, if you were pitching me to review your book, mentioning that you read my books, use a Macintosh, or play hockey is very effective.

* Do it yourself. I hate pitches that PR flacks send along these lines: “Did you know that Joe Schmoe of Schmoe Industries has written a new book? He is available for an interview with you.” The only time this works is when I already know the PR person or Joe Schmoe has accomplished something that I’ve heard about. If these conditions don’t exist, make contact by yourself.

* Keep it short. The ideal length for an e-mail is five sentences: Who you are; what the name and subject of your book is; what the gist of the book is; what you would like me to do; and how to get a copy if I’m interested. That’s it. No more, no less. I don’t want your life story. Remember: HotOrNot, not eHarmony.

* Make contact when others aren’t. If you want to break through the noise, send your e-mail during the weekend or first thing in the morning (recipient’s time). You want your e-mail to hit the person’s inbox when fewer e-mails are arriving, so your recipient is more likely to respond to you.

Step three is to follow up on your e-mail. A reasonable time to wait (for both parties) is two to three days. Send an even shorter e-mail to ask if he received your previous e-mail and if he would consider reviewing your book. A week later, send one more e-mail. Then give up. It wasn’t meant to happen.

Guy Kawasaki has written 12 books, 10 of which were traditionally published. His newest book is APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur — How to Publish a Book, which helps people understand how and why to self-publish.

APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book, by Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch, is available as an eBook ($9.99) and in paperback ($24.99). Visit APEthebook.com

Building a social Media platform for your book

This information is courtesy of Outskirts Press.

What It Takes to Build a Strong “Author Platform” on Social Media Sites For Your Book

Social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are some of the most powerful and persuasive tools entrepreneurs can use in their marketing efforts. However many authors are unsure how to put this modern medium to best use.

First and foremost, get started – but start smart. Establish personal and/or author accounts on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, WordPress, Pinterest – any platform that has a large audience of people who connect and share with each other. You’ll need to set up social media profiles on each platform, which focus on you, your book, your interests or the literary genre you’re promoting.

You may wish to focus on different aspects of your personal and professional life with each platform, depending on what each has to offer. For example, you might use the visual nature of Pinterest to share behind-the-scenes candid shots of your writing process and inspirations, and reserve Twitter for instant publishing and sales updates, article sharing and news. You may wish to blog only on WordPress and link these blog posts with your Twitter and Facebook accounts. The important thing is to make the best use of each platform’s strengths. If you’re inexperienced with social media, this could take some experimentation to get fully up and running.

It’s important to identify and establish relevant connections with users on each social media platform that could further your book selling efforts. This can be the most time-consuming and labor-intensive part of the process for a beginner. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are many, many individuals in the publishing world with a great deal of experience using social media as a marketing tool who can advise you as you take your first tentative steps in this new world.

To get started, you may wish to think of 10 or 12 people on each social media platform that you feel would enjoy your book or could benefit from it in some way, and reach out to them via social media. Often a simple search will take you right to the individuals with whom you want to connect. Talk with these people about chatting openly on their forums about your book and their literary interests.

Throughout your social media experience, repeat this mantra: “It’s not all about me.” Social media functions best when you think not about what you can get from it, but what you can give to the audience with whom you network. This is a difficult concept for many first-time users to grasp, since the end game may be to achieve greater visibility.

However, by giving freely to your followers and virtual friends – whether it’s information, discounts, blogs and vlogs, advice, industry insight, time or some other content – you begin to build credibility as a resource, and an online presence that’s uniquely you. When social media is “done right,” your readers will feel enriched and you’ll gain insight and visibility.

That’s reason enough to reach out. Ideally, those folks you touch will, in turn, reach for your book!