Tag Archives: writing tips

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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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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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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scene and sequel

Fictional time usually unfolds in either scene or sequel. Sequels are also known as summaries.

Scenes are generally short, occur in real story time, and include action and dialogue. Scenes are necessary! They are how your reader experiences the story through your character’s eyes. Scenes are significant to the movement of the story—crises, turning points, showdowns and tension between characters happen during them.

Here is an example of a small scene from a novel in progress:

Rowan dug into the stew. She stopped as soon as the food entered her mouth. “What is this?”
“Venison,” Moss said.
“Venison, you mean like deer? What store carries deer?”
“I shot, dressed, and froze it.”
“You shot it? An innocent deer?” She set down her spoon. “How could you do that?”
“Rowan!” her mother said. “Where are your manners?”
“Where is his … his kindness?” She frowned hard in his direction. Moss tried to keep a straight face.
Carolina shook her head at her daughter, but didn’t say anything.
“Do you eat meat at home?” Moss asked.
Rowan twisted her spoon in the stew. “Yeah.”
“Well, how do you think it got on your plate? Did it walk there of its own accord?”

Sequels often describe in narrative form (no dialogue), the character’s reflection on the scene that just occurred, or may cover a longer period of time. Sequels may also give the reader character background, provide overall story information, and perhaps most important, transition the reader through time: a short leap (such as Two days later,) or decades.

Here’s a short sequel from a different point in the story:

In moments like these, Carolina admitted to herself that she was hungering for a partner again. She longed for the day-to-day rubbing elbows, conferring about small decisions, bumping into each other as they invented some new concoction in the kitchen. She hardly ever let herself think about it, but she missed Rafe. Badly. Missed him in that secret chamber of her heart, but she’d slammed the door shut from the blunt-force trauma of losing him. Rafe. Oh, Rafe. If only he could see Rowan now. Rowan missed him too—he’d died when she was seven. Of flu. How could a strong, young man just up and die of flu?

This sequel is through the awareness of one of the main characters, but there is neither dialogue nor significant action. It simply relays information so the reader knows Carolina’s history better.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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first, second, or third person?

As a writer, you need to make a decision about whether to use first or third person to tell your point-of-view character’s story. Authors have used second person, but it is rare, and it takes a skilled writer to make it work. It has the effect of distancing the reader.

  • First person: Example: “I had heard my mother say “black sheep” about other people often enough to know that I would pay a family price for believing the doctor’s faulty pronouncement.” Memoir is generally told in the first person, and sometimes novels, as well.
  • Second person: Example: “You had heard your mother say “black sheep” about other people often enough to know you would pay a family price for believing the doctor’s faulty pronouncement.”
  • Third person: Example: “She had heard her mother say “black sheep” about other people often enough to know she would pay a family price for believing the doctor’s faulty pronouncement.” Third person is commonly used for novels–it is what readers are most familiar with.

In each of these choices, the writer is limited to describing only what the “I,” “you,” or “her or she” character can taste, touch, hear, see, smell, know and feel. This limitation also brings a strength: the reader identifies with the point of view character, and feels intimate with them.

You can also tell a story from an omniscient point of view–flying high above the characters. I’ll address this in another post.

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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point of view (POV)

Whether you are writing memoir or fiction, your reader is introduced to your story through one of your character’s eyes. This is called the point-of-view character–we see the world being created with words through this point of view. We know the thoughts and feelings of this character, but not the others who populate the story. For people who are just beginning to write, I encourage writing with only one point-of-view character. The next task is learning to control your writing so the story is told through one set of eyes alone. This is not as easy as it sounds.

Notice as you reread your scene:

  • Are you, as the reader, privy to the thoughts of more than one character?
  • Can you look through more than one characters’ eyes?
  • Do you know the inner feelings of more than one character?

If the answer is yes, you have not successfully contained the point of view. Return to your writing with a different eye. Reread the scene, and mark each place you find a POV shift from one character to another. This will make your rewrite easier.

There are many seasoned authors who write from multiple points-of-view successfully, but tackling a first manuscript with more than one POV is like trying to control a team of horses before you even learn to ride.

I learned the hard way. You don’t have to!

© Skye Blaine, 2015

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