A Memoir Shouldn’t Preach

wild monkey

Started talking to an enthusiastic new author yesterday, and the work ties nicely into this blog. Here is something you might already know: show don’t tell. Though I think the concept is better expressed: experience, don’t philosophize. Show don’t tell is a writing tip you can get in any book or site dealing with writing basics, but let’s take a look at how the old adage applies to writing (or ghostwriting, in my case) a memoir or any first person account of events. Keep in mind that I’m assuming you aren’t writing a book of essays but a book that you want to read like a novel–something where the characters grab you, suspense builds, and readers are eager to turn that page and see what happens next.

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Write Knowing You May Have to Cut It

barber with Tattooed hand cuts a man's beard

A lot of people ask me about writer’s block, how I deal with it, and so forth. Honestly, I think the notion of a creative block is almost as romantic and fantastical as the romantic notion of “the writer’s life” I was writing about yesterday.

I mean, people get blocked in all kinds of endeavors, and usually that’s because they don’t know what their goal is, or they don’t know what steps to take to achieve it. Most blocks of any kind (I learned this while ghostwriting a time-management book) occur because you haven’t broken your task down into small enough chunks. Any daunting task is just a too-complex job. Make it into ten smaller jobs, listed in order, and then you’re facing something you can actually do. That’s true, but it’s also theory. So, let’s look at how this applies to creative work.

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Oral Storytelling and the Antihero

people sitting around a campfire telling stories

This blog ties back to the one I wrote a couple days ago about backstory. What I want to talk about today is the concept of the antihero. For me, these are my favorite types of heroes, because they’re real, they’re flawed, they’re not James Bond, they’re not entirely good or ethical, but we love them because they are like us. Only, in most cases, they dare to do things we wouldn’t dare to do. The caper I’m writing now, about bank robbers, is a great example of this.

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Flashing Back

When I’m ghostwriting a memoir, an interesting challenge usually comes up: there are two stories that need to be told. This is also a big issue when the book reads like a novel based upon a true story: there is the “real time” story, and then there is the “back story.”

The real time story is the one we’re telling–

  • “How I succeeded in business,”
  • “How I overcame MS and became a celebrated athlete,”
  • “Our trip to Africa and how it changed us forever,”
  • “How I escaped from one cult only to join another one,”
  • “How and why my best friends and I robbed a bank.”

(just using examples from the books I’ve written in the past few years. You get the picture.)

Of course, the back story is what the reader needs to know in order to understand how you got to be you. Often, this involves  the story of your childhood, sometimes the story of your young-adulthood too.

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Using Dialogue to Build Characters

faces in grey concrete wall

On the current crime novel project, I’ve been writing a lot of dialogue lately. A lot of clients working on memoir (or novels based on true stories) actually end up coming to me after trying to write their own book. This is specifically because they have finally realized they can’t write dialogue.

I thought here I’d try to talk a little bit about how I do it. The answer of course, is I just DO it. The characters come alive as they talk. But if I were to break it down into the various components of what goes on, subconsciously, when I bring them alive like that, I’d say the following.

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Humor in Memoir Workshop

I recently conducted a workshop entitled “Humor in Memoir.” Originally, the workshop was actually called “Laugh and the World Laughs with You.”  I gave this workshop at the Association of Personal Historians annual conference in St. Louis, MO, last October.

This was an attempt to try to teach memoirists how to inject humor into their work. If you’ve read my ghostwriting site, you’ll know I use humor a lot in all the work I do, but when people ask me how I do it or what situations call for humor, sometimes I just shrug. It’s intuitive! But I wanted to answer that question once and for all and codify (if you will) writing with humor, so that people who just don’t have a natural knack for it can try to learn to do it.

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