Sometimes advice for writers really gets up my nose. I don't believe you have to write every day.* Or that you have to carry a notebook or journal. I'm not going to tell you to draft your whole book before you allow yourself to go back and edit. (Unless those things work for you, of course.) You can find such "rules" all over the internet.
I may not believe in rules for writing, but there are definitely tactics that work for some people. The trick is to find the ones that work for you. Read on for a couple that at one time or another proved helpful to me.
Write something only you know
We can only guess how many memoirs have been published by survivors of war or the Dust Bowl or Woodstock or high school. Why write another one? Because at least part of your experience was unique. Find the parts of the story that no one can tell but you, and go from there.
Identify your theme
A coherent, meaningful work of fiction or nonfiction differs from a random, rambling account because it has a unifying theme. Your theme doesn't have to be stated or even obvious. In fact, it's probably best if it isn't. But if you choose a word or phrase that represents your work and remind yourself of it often, it will guide you when you need to make a decision in your writing. Some of my recent themes were "family" and "trust."
I first read of this tactic in an interview with film director Francis Ford Coppola, who said he gives each of his films a one or two-word theme, such as "privacy" (for The Conversation) and "morality" (for Apocalypse). Whenever he gets stuck or needs to make a quick decision - such as what kind of coat Gene Hackman's wiretapping detective should wear - he can refer to the theme. Thus the origin of Hackman's now iconic transparent raincoat.**
A theme will guide problems much bigger than raincoats. My book with the theme of trust isn't "about" trust. It's about 11-year-old twins who accidently time-travel to the 1970s! But I use the theme to inspire conflict (not trusting themselves, not trusting each other, not knowing who to trust), and I use the sisters' gradual earning of mutual trust to shape the entire book.
In this way, an underlying theme helps give an emotional arc to the events of the story that boosts it beyond the banality of who-did-what.
Learn more: My post "How to Start a Novel" is full of encouragement and tips (and not just for novelists). I explain the "plotting" and "pantsing" methods; I take a stab at putting some thrill into outlining; and I identify steps that all book writers must take that don't involve writing but that are guaranteed to move your project forward, even if you only follow up on one or two.
* Even so, that "rule" has worked for me, and I recommend it. When writing becomes a habit, progress is more or less guaranteed.
** Shaula Evans, "Francis Ford Coppola on Working with Theme."
CORRECTIONS: In some versions of my last newsletter, I cited a webpage that has since been updated and relinked. The correct citation is Mark Dawson, Self-PublishingFormula.com. And the domain name I bought is DuckweedBooks.com (not Duckweed.com). Gaah - good thing I don't have a website yet.
Below you'll find
answers to the first poll
a short Q&A (Some of you sent questions!)
a link to this month's post at The Subversive Copy Editor blog
a celebration of YOUR published books
This is not a weekly newsletter
I was thinking more like monthly. And yet, here I am again, only two weeks later.
And I'm afraid my first letter was too long. One reader wrote, "This is too much for me to read." No one wrote, "Write more!"
Thank you for answering the survey! Results below. By far the majority of you are writing as a creative project or a challenge. Me too!
Very few of you seem frantic to learn about publishing right away. Nonetheless, that's my deal. I promise you it's not too early to start learning about the process, your choices, and possible pitfalls. Ideally, when you're finished writing your book, you'll be glad you have a clue about what's next.
Still, I'll keep in mind that you most want tips on getting started writing and staying on track.
You ask, I answer
Many of you wrote to explain your projects and ask questions. Here's a selection.
Q. “I have about 2/3 of a memoir done, but haven't written for a long time. I don't have an ending and other things in my life have taken over. Will I ever get back to it? I don't know...”
A. Think more about why you chose that particular chunk of your life to recount. Memoirs that simply list the events of a life can only end when the writer dies. A memoir that’s about something, that has a theme, can come to a conclusion, even if the conclusion is a bit messy and uncertain about what's to come.
Q. “I have lots of scenes and some lovely mini arcs, but no plot. Sometimes I think what I’ve really got here are poems. I’m more used to editing than writing.”
A. I was in this exact spot back in 2003. What saved me was help from an editor at a writing retreat. You can read about my experience here. Maybe it will help you pull things together.
Q. My book is a series of life lessons. Should I stick with a memoir or flip to self help?
A. Don’t get bogged down with this question until you finish writing. Almost all self-help books contain a large component of memoir. But at some point browse a bookstore or library (online or for real) to see which section you fit in. Identifying your genre is essential if you plan to market your book.
In the writers’ groups where I hang out online, these queries are evergreen:
How do I know if I need a copyeditor before I submit my work to an agent or editor?
How do I find a good copyeditor?
How much does copyediting cost?
The replies and comments are typically so head-spinning in their range and variety that no one could blame writers for being confused. And who can blame a writer for resisting an expense they aren’t convinced is necessary?
This memoir is an elegy of an able-bodied life. Katy Hayes carries us through her feelings of inadequacy as a quadruple amputee mother and human being, to a discovery of self-expression, self-love, acceptance, and independence through art.
When Jelaine’s parents purchase a nudist camp and move their family in, life leaves normalcy. She becomes divided between the free-thinking camp and the judgmental world outside. Jelaine strives to keep the secret, but her parents strive to convert the world. Join Jelaine for the struggles and capers of nudism.
An entertaining, light-hearted review of terms about everyday language—words for everything from misheard lyrics to fake dictionary entries to puzzling headlines. For anyone who's interested in language (and who isn't?), this book will help readers consider what they hear and read with deeper knowledge and greater curiosity.
Love and Rage is a deeply ethnographic account of punk in Mexico City as it is lived and practiced, connecting the sounds of punk music to the different styles of political action through which scene participants experiment with anarchist politics.
YOUR book news
Let me know if you published a book (indie or traditional) in the last three months. I'll give you a shout-out in the next newsletter.