Category Archives: writing

my friend’s blog post: “one reason not to publish a memoir”

My friend Laura McHale Holland has written a thought-provoking post as a guest blogger on Kathy Pooler’s site. Anyone writing–or interested in writing–memoir can benefit by reading her post.

Here’s the link, and her picture is below: http://wp.me/p1vAO5-3kn

laura-mchale-holland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Enjoy!
Skye

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Bound to Love wins award!

My memoir, Bound to Love, won the indieBRAG medallion award, hence the new gold medallion on the cover. I was delighted to receive fives, their top rating, in every category.

They review, and grade independently published books. I’ve entered four other contests for books post-publication, which I hope to hear about in the next few months.

Bound to Love cover dropshdw BRAG for sig

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can we trust memory?

Memory is, by its very nature, flawed. Our brains take snapshots of events, and encode, along with the picture, smells, sounds, textures, and sometimes dialogue. But the whole scene is not captured; only the parts that impacted us. Memory is piecemeal.

Nonetheless, when we undertake writing a memoir—a chunk of our history—we are stuck with memory as our main source material, and if we’re lucky, journals we might have kept. It is my belief that if we have worked hard not to judge others, and to honestly assess the role we played in those events, we can use those memories to help reconstruct the story.

A big section of my memoir took place over thirty years ago. When faced with writing dialogue, I relied on my feeling sense of the encounters. Occasionally I remembered actual sentences people said, because they struck me so strongly. But most the time, I recreated it. Many people who are in the memoir have now read my account. No one, including the doctors who played a powerful role in our lives, has complained about the conversations I reconstructed in the memoir.

Of course, I also did research, and talked to people who were in my life back then. They were less helpful than I expected. These were not vivid memories that they had stored, because the situation hadn’t impacted them the way it had me.

So as long as you are not out to blame anyone, including yourself, and have developed an honest curiosity—even in situations where you felt victimized—I suggest trusting yourself, and writing what you recall on the page.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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The Book Designer e-book cover awards

I entered my cover in Joel Friedlander’s e-book cover contest at thebookdesigner.com. The nonfiction books are way down at the bottom. Although I did not win an award, Joel’s comment was “nicely balanced.”

Bound to Love ebook website

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believable prose

In addition to hooking our readers in the first couple of paragraphs, our writing needs to have verisimilitude—whether we’re writing memoir or fiction, it needs to be believable, smooth, and carry the reader into the dream of our story. Paying attention to these six points can help this happen:

  • Correct use of words—nothing will throw the reader out of the story faster than incorrect word usage. Know the difference between effect and affect. Capital and capitol. Site and cite. Complement and compliment. Lie and lay. Just because journalists and politicians make these mistakes doesn’t mean it is all right for serious writers. On the Internet you can look up lists of often confused and misused words. By using words correctly, you build the reader’s trust.
  • Sentence formation—vary sentence length, making sure sentences are constructed properly, without dangling modifiers, or incorrect referents. A scene with high tension might have shorter sentences, and even some fragments. A sequel that describes place might have lush, longer sentences. Notice the rhythm your sentences have, and vary it. We writers need to become aware of our tendencies, and work to overcome them.
  • Economical writing—our prose is dragged down by extra words: two (or three, or four) adjectives where one would do; extra attributions—he said, she said—where the meaning is clear without them; wandering, or circling descriptions, or weak verbs where a powerful one could eliminate unnecessary adverbs.
    Hint: I participate in a weekly critique group. Each week, we bring up to ten pages. For the six nights prior to that group, I review the section—honing, searching for strong verbs, deleting extra words. Every night I find ways to strengthen the writing. As I near the evening of the critique group, I read my selection out loud. It is amazing what I catch by listening to the words rather than reading them.
  • Avoid cliches—cliches are the easy, fall-back way that people describe a situation: “time will tell,” “old as the hills,” “scared out of my wits,” “fall head over heels.” Writers need to do better! Cliches are a sign of writerly laziness. It’s fine to use one as a placeholder in a first draft, but by the second draft, come up with an original phrase.
  • Retain standard punctuation—avoid multiple exclamation points !!!, or the useful ?!. They do not have a place in serious writing. Instead, use words to create that feeling.
  • Strong verbs—using strong verbs reduces the need for adverbs and adjectives, and lessens our reliance on the verb “to be.” Search your work for “was” and “were.” You may be stunned by how many instances you find.

Remember, most suggested rules have been broken in ways that succeed. But don’t count on it!

© Skye Blaine,  2016

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Filed under beginning writers, new writers, writing, writing craft

opening hooks

When writers begin a new piece, our first instinct is that we need to fill our readers in on what went before, so they are prepared for the story that is starting now. Sometimes our first instincts are not correct—and opening with back story is not the way to invite the reader in.

We need to hook our readers first. We must compel them to read on. There are a number of ways to incite the reader forward:
● Focus on one character, and make that character specific and unique, so the reader gets curious (second example, below)
● Raise a question, a problem, a situation, or a theme that the reader needs to have answered (first example, below)
● Answer or raise, or both, some of the questions of who, what, when, where, why
● Soon after, or in the opening itself, something must occur that raises the question of how things might turn out.
Do all novels or memoirs fulfill these specific hooks? No. But there must be something in the writing to drive the reader forward, to forget that he or she is relaxing in a recliner, and that the laundry really does need folding.

Look at this example, The Invention of Solitude, by Paul Auster:
“One day, there is life. A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be. He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him. And then, suddenly, it happens there is death. A man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death.”

This opening paragraph seems general, but as the reader, aren’t you convinced that soon, in just a few pages, you will find out what man has died? And why? He’s not even old! What happened?

And from Waiting to Exhale, by Terry MacMillan:
“Right now I’m supposed to be all geeked up because I’m getting ready for a New Year’s Eve party that some guy named Lionel invited me to. Sheila, my baby sister, insisted on giving me his phone number because he lives here in Denver and her simple-ass husband played basketball with him eleven years ago at the University of Washington, and since I’m still single (which is downright pitiful to her, considering I’m the oldest of four kids and the only one who has yet to say “I do”), she’s worried about me.”

MacMillan develops voice and character in this opening paragraph with “simple-ass husband” and “downright pitiful.” The reader wants to get to know this character better.

I encourage writers not to worry about the opening at beginning of writing. New writers can get stuck, writing and rewriting the first page. Often, it is not until the novel or memoir is finished that we come to understand the full arc, and where the story actually needs to start.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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dialogue

Many beginning writers find dialogue daunting, so they try to avoid it, by not bringing their characters on scene. However, there are a few simple ways to strengthen the conversations your characters have, and make them believable to your readers.

Lewis Turco, in his book, Dialogue, gives an example of weak, overstated dialogue:

“Hello,” he croaked nervously, “my name’s Horace. What’s yours?” he asked with as much aplomb as he could muster.
“Hi,” she squeaked uncertainly, turning in her chair to look at him. “I’m Gail Adams,” she said blushingly.
“Pleased to meet you,” Horace declared. “I’ve been watching you for about an hour,” he offered with a quaver in his voice.

Turco calls this an example of author intrusion—the reader is over-guided, and the illusion of reality is lost. Here are steps to avoid unbelievable dialogue:

  1. When giving dialogue attribution, generally use “said.” Occasionally you may use “added,” or “replied.” The “he said” and “she said” fall into the background—they guide the reader, but do not intrude.
  1. Sometimes tags (another word for attribution) aren’t needed at all. If the person speaking is already identified in the paragraph, you can eliminate tag, as in this example from my novel-in-progress:

Moss’s heart turned to stone in his chest. “Aw, jeez, no. Please! You know how I feel about this dog. I worked hard to save her; I want her to be my dog now.”

  1. Allow the strength of writing to eliminate most adverbs, such as “nervously,” “uncertainly,” and “blushingly,” in Turco’s example. Your readers are smart! If you handle dialogue well, they will glean subtleties that are only implied on the page. You can show those same adverbs with body action, instead.  For example, instead of “blushingly,” you could say, after the dialogue, Her face pinked up, or Her hands jumped to her face, now hot. Something like that.
  2. When you have a long stretch of dialogue, you don’t need to identify (tag, or attribute) who is speaking each time. Hopefully, each character has a unique way of talking that is identifiable. Include tags now and again, as in the example below #5.
  3. Start a new paragraph each time the dialogue switches to the other speaker.

In the following example from my own writing, notice how little attribution is used, or required, to guide the reader:

“Mr. Moss?”
“Carol?” A man’s resonant voice.
All her life, people had mistakenly called her Carol. “No, it’s Carolina.” She hated when people were careless with her name.
“Just Moss, no mister. Have you lost a dog?”
“Yes! Oh my God, have you found her?” Unsteadily, she slid down to sit on the floor.
“Describe her,” he said.
“Do you have her?”
“Tell me what she looks like. I have a right to make sure she’s your dog.”
“Let’s see. She’s impossibly tall and skinny, with a wiry, gray coat. Her hair hangs over her eyes. What else do you want to know?”
“Her name.”
“Zephyr. Her name is Zephyr. Do you actually have her with you?”
“It’s your girl. She needed surgery, and I’ve been nursing her.”
“What happened? When did she get hurt? We need to come, right away. My daughter’s been frantic.”
Pause.
“Daughter? How old?” His voice had stiffened a bit.
“It’s her dog. Rowan’s eleven.”
“Nope.” Lengthy silence. “You can’t bring a child here.”
His tone was implacable and … something else she couldn’t quite place.
“What do you mean, I can’t bring my child?” Carolina’s voice rose. “Are you a pervert or something?”
“No! Good heavens, nothing like that.”

Strong dialogue is much sparser than the way people actually speak—and yet it is the spare quality that makes it seem real. Also, dialogue is strongest when it illuminates conflict between two people, and avoids the trivial patter that is found in much human conversation.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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adding detail with the senses

Simply put, sense impressions describe a person, place, or thing. They can also clarify a psychological or physical state. They may make use of metaphor or simile.

We tend to write about the senses we cannot help but use, if our eyes and ears are intact: sight and sound. But taste, texture, and smell are just as important to include. Because I notice this common weakness in my writing, I don’t focus on including them in the first draft, but in succeeding drafts, I work to layer in taste, texture, and smell—although not necessarily all at the same time.

Including the senses adds verisimilitude to our work—they take our reader right there. Every person will interpret the words on the page differently, and that’s fine—readers are building their own fictional impressions and world based on the words we craft.

“He did not answer, of course, because he was dead, was now fine, silvery dust in the dark bronze urn I had chosen, nestled between piles of books and old Silas’s basket, which was lined with the rotting old sweater Silas guarded fiercely. It smelled of salt and pine and wood smoke and now, of course Silas.” [her cat]

This paragraph is from the prologue of Anne Rivers Siddons novel, Off Season. She is one of my favorite contemporary authors because her writing uses place as a character, word painting with the senses to carry us right there. This is the first taste of her Maine that we get, offered in the smells: “salt and pine and work smoke.” And we are introduced to her dead husband, Cam, “now fine, silvery dust in the dark bronze urn I had chosen.” (Smells and textures)

And later, in the same prologue: “…and look down from the top of the piled-stone seawall and watch the bay playing about the rocks, creaming and swelling and falling, glittering far to the west where the afternoon sun was lowering. I would smell the clean, fishy, kelpy sun-on-dried-rocks smell, and I would hear the sea breathe.” Siddons has me. I’m fully captured in her fictional world. (Sights and smells and sounds—and I can taste that fishy smell, too.)

Give the most sensory attention to the important characters and places—it helps guide the reader in understanding what’s important.

One can be lush and still spare. Allow the reader spaces to create for themselves within your work—don’t do it all for them. They will appreciate this.

© Skye Blaine, 2016

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My book is published!

My book, Bound to Love: a memoir of grit and gratitude has been published! Both the paperback and Kindle versions can be found here, at Amazon. Other digital versions can be found at Smashwords.

Bound to Love ebook websiteThe memoir won first prize in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association 2005 contest under the name Blood Bond. That was a very bad time to market memoirs, I discovered, because of James Frey’s betrayal of the form when he exaggerated his personal story. I let the manuscript molder on my computer for seven years, then pulled it out and walked it through two more critique groups.

Bound to Love is the true story of a single mother who encountered and navigated a complicated nightmare for any parent. My child, the only child I could ever bear, was born with a life-threatening congenital heart defect, and suffered a more brutal health diagnosis soon after. Walk with me as I birth the courage and grit to meet Thom’s compounding challenges.

The memoir covers Thom’s first twenty years as we confront prejudice, injustice, and a share of compassion as well. This is an important read for any parent who feels alone raising a child with complex disabilities.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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IngramSpark or CreateSpace?

I have had quite a week. First, because I prefer to do business locally, I got a bid from my favorite local printer. Each copy of my book would cost over $10. Then I planned to publish with IngramSpark, so my book will be in their catalog. I still will. However…

I have not yet reached IngramSpark by telephone to get questions answered. I have waited on hold for an hour each time, and finally hung up because I needed to go to appointments.

Frustrated, I decided to try CreateSpace. Each copy of my book will cost $4.32 including shipping. Their customer service department is simply amazing. Over the last week, I’ve spoken to eight or ten customer service representatives. I put in my phone number for them to call me “now,” and within about 30 seconds, my phone rang. I was then put on hold–but every time, the hold was approximately one minute. The representatives have been unfailingly helpful, friendly, and human. They seemed happy and upbeat. Only one had a slight accent that made it a little difficult to understand her–and the problem was most likely on my end, because I wear hearing aids.

There is no charge for uploading and proofing a book and its cover. I ended up uploading mine three times, because even after countless proofreadings, my husband and I still found small glitches–a missing drop cap, an indent with one extra space, a word that was supposed to be italicized, but I had missed it. Yes, I am a perfectionist.

When I placed the order for my first 100 books, the review invoice showed sales tax. I have a resale permit from California, so I called CreateSpace yet again. My window is getting smaller–I want to take the books to a retreat that begins on October 25th, and I should have my books by October 20th if I order them today. I had to send them a signed form and a copy of my resale permit. They found my email–addressed only to info@createspace.com–while I was on the telephone with them, corrected my account, and boom! Within 1/2 hour from first noticing, we solved the problem, and my invoice now shows up with no sales tax. ORDER PLACED! People grouse about Amazon all the time, but CreateSpace is one of their divisions, and I’m a fan.

Now back to waiting on the telephone for IngramSpark.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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