Is Writing Memoir Worth It?

Is Writing Memoir Worth It?

Guest blogger – Heidi Croot

You’ve just shipped your memoir to a professional editor. The release feels like death and rebirth all at once. While you wait, breathless, for feedback, someone asks, How did writing your memoir affect you emotionally? And a follow-up question: Was it a worthwhile journey?

Wait a minute, you think. The second question implies that the answer to the first might sound something like, “It emotionally crushed me.” Because that’s what many people believe, right? That doing a deep dive into a painful past means wallowing in grief?

Here’s how I answered those questions when they were put to me during a radio interview with Northumberland 89.7FM’s Word on the Hills in mid-May, mere days after my manuscript dropped anchor in my editor’s inbox.

A worthwhile journey?

Last question first: Was writing your memoir a worthwhile journey? A thousand times yes. And, why?  Because of how it affected me emotionally.

Writing my memoir, Hope is a Tyrant, bordered on magic. It was a process of discovery. A woodland trail of surprises. A delivery into the ready arms of acceptance and healing. 

I’ve written my way into seeing people differently, important people, like my mother, for example, whose legs were paralyzed by polio when she was eight. Writing helped me understand that the biggest lie in our family was she had taken her disability in stride. She had not. How could she? Polio was far too big. She wore the mask her father, medical staff and a harsh world handed to her.

I’ve written my way into understanding mysterious undercurrents in my family, such as what was behind my mother’s obsession with her charismatic father—her mainstay and intellectual companion during years of loneliness at home and in hospital. I realized through writing that fantasizing about him made her feel special, and therefore worth the burden she had been forced to place on her family, and this helped her banish shame.

To my chagrin, I’ve also written my way into learning a few things about myself. Naïve, brimming with blind, stubborn hope, lacking boundaries, I failed many times to see different paths I could have taken to dial down family drama.

“My” story became “a” story

But the best part about writing memoir is how it eventually stopped being “my” story and became “a” story. In Wallace Stegner’s The Spectator Bird, a clairvoyant suggests that painful memories should be looked upon as part of a narrative, like chapters. Reframing painful events as scenes allowed me to exchange subjectivity for objectivity. Prick the bubble of my self-importance. Reduce the event to realistic, if not amusing, proportions. “Stories,” says the clairvoyant, “are part of the accumulation you think will tell you something.”

Acceptance and equilibrium

What memoir told me is that some relationships cannot be fixed. It told me how to accept this. How to be forgiving, empathetic, and less judgmental. How to find my equilibrium.

Turning in my manuscript to my editor has unmoored me, with maybe a little grief mixed in. For years, working on the memoir had kept my imperfect self linked to my imperfect parents, and perhaps to hope, which—if I’m right about hope being a tyrant—makes no sense, but that’s another thing I learned: I can live with paradox and imperfect endings.

And that will be true even if the imperfect ending to my memoir-experiment means a stern call to action from my editor: the inevitable, yet welcome, shuffle, delete, clarify, go deeper. Familiar pages in need of edits will beckon like old friends, eager to shepherd me through new portals to unexplored places, where still more epiphanies wait.

It will be worth it

All of which takes us back to the beginning: Seize every opportunity to write your life stories. The experience will affect you emotionally. It will be worth it.

Meet Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is working on a memoir. Her corporate writing has appeared in numerous trade publications, and her creative work in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Writescape, Brevity, Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, and elsewhere.

Ragged Company

Ragged Company

Today we invite guest blogger, poet Kathryn MacDonald, to share some thoughts on Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese and his take on how everyone has a story to tell. Kathryn (Kate) reviews books and poetry collections and also blogs on poetry and related topics at her website kathrynmacdonald.com where today’s blog first appeared.

Guest blogger: Kathryn MacDonald

Ragged Company by Richard Wagamese

…the day that’s all around you, is inside you too, and you think that it’s a perfect fit. But you go outside and you walk in your woe. You take it to the streets or the fields or wherever and you walk in it.

This is what you do with yearning.

A book is powerful when it captures emotion, when it stirs memory buried so deep you’re surprised when it surfaces. Ragged Company by the late Ojibway author Richard Wagamese is a powerful story.

The memory Wagamese stirred in me is rooted in a downtown neighbourhood of Ottawa around 25 years ago. Every morning as I walked the few blocks to my office along the river, I passed a man sitting on a worn grey blanket, his back to a wall. In winter, icy wind tunneled through the street. In summer, dust and debris blew relentlessly. I respected his diligence. Some mornings—not every morning—I dropped change into his hat, but whether I did or not, we nodded. Gradually over time, I think we looked for each other.

One morning, he beckoned me to squat down as he unfolded a newspaper. There on his lap was a feather. “A peregrine feather,” he told me. A man had found it—a pair were nesting high on one of the city’s hotel towers—and had given it to him. A hawk feather. A simple, thoughtful act. A smile crinkled his eyes. I felt deeply honoured to be sharing his joy.

A Hard Story

Ragged Company is a hard story told in stark language through the voices of five narrators—four “rounders” of the streets and one “Straight John.” Everyone has a story, and none are as soft as mine. One of the characters, One For the Dead (they each have street names), explains to the “Straight John” the importance stories play in our lives:

“We’re all storytellers, Granite,” I said. “From the moment we’re graced with the beginnings of language, we become storytellers. Kids, the first thing they do when they learn to talk is tell you all about what they’re doing, what they’re seeing. They tell you stories about their little lives. Us, too. When we get together after not seeing each other for a while, the first thing we do is tell each other a story about what we’ve been up to. What we’ve seen, what we did, what we felt and went through. Guess we kinda can’t help ourselves that way. It’s who we are.

I won’t go into the plot line of Ragged Company, you can check the cover copy for that, but the themes of loss and yearning and the importance of friendship and respect are particularly interesting as explored by Wagamese.

Although Granite is a retired journalist who knows something about stories, he learns more about others and about himself. He comes to realize a truth:

Beggary. It’s not the sole property of the street people or the ill defined. It’s part of all of us, part of everyone who has ever suffered loss. A handout. It meant something more suddenly. It meant more than the image and the idea of a dirty, wrinkled, weakened hand stretched outward to accept nickels and dimes. It meant every hand extended across the galaxy of separation that exists between all of us.

This is a story about loss of culture, loss of family, loss of love, and loss of self. It is also a story about finding those things within and through the company of others. It is course and tender, brutal and poetic. The sixth narrator—perhaps the voice of Wagamese—is reflective and appears sparingly in offset italic type. It is this voice that introduced the novel and the thread of movies that runs throughout creating insight, magical, empathetic insight.

For the writers among us:

  1. Movies become open doorways to understanding unspoken realities and dreams, catalysts for feeling and for discussion among the unlikely friendships. Whether you write prose or poetry, think about how you open windows and doors for your characters and readers?
  2. We write our myths and legends into our work, sometimes directly as Wagamese does with Ojibway stories, and sometimes subtly written between the lines. Think about your awareness of the stories layered in your writing and what they add to (or distract from) your theme.

Meet Kathryn MacDonald

Photo by Alber Hernandez, Cuba

Kathryn’s poems have appeared in literary journals in Canada, the U.S., Ireland, and England. Her poem “Duty / Deon” won Arc Award of Awesomeness (January 2021).  “Seduction” was shortlisted for the Freefall Annual Poetry Contest edited by Gary Barwin. “Seduction” was published in Freefall (Fall 2020). She has poems forthcoming in The Beauty of Being Elsewhere, an anthology edited by John B. Lee. Her collection, published in 2011, is titled A Breeze You Whisper.

Moving Foward

Moving Foward

Guest blogger – Christopher Cameron

“I write for the same reasons I run: not for expiation but for exaltation; not to pull myself up from the depths, but to fly higher. I cherish the whole endless, chaotic process of writing, from first spark of inspiration to final revision.”

So says author and editor, Christopher Cameron on his website, and today, with permission, we repost his blog about running that originally appeared on January 1, 2021 on the Northumberland Festival of the Arts blog  A Journal in Time of Pandemic and Lockdown.

Moving Forward

Some runners wear headphones and listen to music or audiobooks, but I love hearing the sound of my shoes hitting the road as I run through the hills of Northumberland. Different sounds for different roads: pat-pat on pavement; critch-critch on gravel; and a kind of a wash-wash on dirt roads.

It isn’t unusual for me to run for several hours, and some people are amazed that I actually enjoy this. My reward is the peaceful contentment that comes from moving myself forward from one place to another under my own power. In the years since I moved to Meyers Island, south of Campbellford, I’ve run all of these pathways countless times, and most are as familiar to me as my own driveway.

Yet somehow, each run is slightly different, each path finds something new to throw in my way, and it is those differences that keep me guessing and engaged. Every step forward adds to my knowledge and experience for the next time.

You don’t have to go out and run for hours to know that some things are hard. Home-schooling children is hard; trying to run a storefront retail business is hard; isolating yourself from loved ones is hard. They were hard during what people are calling the “before-time.” They’ve been even harder this year. There have been more hills to climb, more trees fallen across the path.

People seem to like lamenting the loss of the good old days, and everybody is looking forward to a return to normalcy. Some on social media have been billing 2021 as some kind Elysian fields, where we can all go back to the wonderful life we led before the bad old days of 2020.

It reminds me of a Facebook group I followed for a while: a lot of people wondered why life couldn’t be like it once was, when ice cream was only five cents. I suspect that if Facebook had been around back when it “once was,” there would have been a group wondering why life couldn’t be like it was when ice cream was only one cent.

There were no good old days, unless you count Carly Simon’s maxim that they are happening today. There are just days, one after another, like steps along a path. We move forward, by running, walking, wheeling, or simply by living. We clear the hurdles any way we can and we keep going. When needed, we stop to help a fellow traveller along.

I think we should congratulate ourselves at the end of this year. It’s good to see how far we’ve come and to collate what we’ve learned so we can use it on the road ahead.

I used to have a mantra I repeated in the tough parts of a very long endurance event, when the night had settled over me and all my energy was gone: I’m alive and I’m moving forward. As long as these two things are true, nothing else can stop us.

It’s probable that 2021 will throw stuff at us we can’t even imagine yet. As the late Gilda Radner reminded us, “It’s always something.” Who knows? Maybe someday we will look back on 2020 and sigh wistfully, remembering when all we had to do was wear a mask. But we will have our experience, our vision, and our humanity to help us navigate our way home.

And isn’t it marvellous that we still have ice cream?

Meet Chris

Christopher Cameron enjoyed a long and successful career as a professional opera singer, performing on opera and concert stages across Canada. In 2009, he began a career as a freelance writer and certified copy editor.

His first book, a witty, irreverent memoir of his singing years, Dr. Bartolo’s Umbrella and Other Tales from my Surprising Operatic Life (Seraphim Editions), was published in 2017.

Chris lived in Toronto for most of his life until he and his wife Karen relocated to the banks of the Trent River in Campbellford in June 2017. Chris is also an ultramarathon runner, long-distance cyclist, and seven-time Ironman triathlon finisher. He blogs about reading, writing, and athletics on his website.

Writing Speeches for Profit

Writing Speeches for Profit

Guest Post by freelance writer Dorothea Helms

Helping people put into words what they want to say in public can be a fun and lucrative source of revenue for freelance writers. Ghostwriting speeches and/or remarks for businesspeople is like writing dialogue in fiction: you have to put yourself into the “voices” of your characters rather than write how you’d say things. Here are a few tips on how to approach speech writing for clients.

Before you write

  • Know the main purpose of the speech. Is it to entertain? Inform? Educate? Inspire to action? This should affect everything you write for the job.
  • Keep in mind the rhetoric (speaker-audience-message) triangle. The words you weave must be appropriate for all three.
  • Know your speaker. Have a conversation with the person to discover their speaking style. Does your client speak with flowery words or in straightforward business talk? If you cannot meet in person, at least video call or chat over the phone.
  • Know your client’s event participation and timing. Will they be giving a formal speech or adding some remarks to an agenda? Will your client be the emcee? How long should the presentation be? Most people speak at approximately 140 words per minute. If your client speaks slowly or quickly, adjust your word count accordingly. If your client is the emcee, you’ll need to add some occasional (DIRECTIONS) in caps and bracketed to indicate when introductions and other parts of the event occur.
  • Know your client’s audience. Who will your client be addressing? The presentation must be appropriate for the audience.

THE SPEECH ITSELF:

There’s an old saying that is still valid in today’s professional presentation world: Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em; then tell ‘em; then tell ‘em what you told ‘em. This is a good rule of thumb for a formal speech. Regardless of any speech’s length or purpose, follow these tips for effectiveness.

  • Research – be sure that any statistics or other information your client uses are accurate.
  • Use powerful verbs – a good power verb will always be more effective than an adverb and a weak verb (think “crept” rather than “walked slowly”).
  • Add humour only if appropriate – again, think of the audience. People can be easily offended. Audiences are diverse, and it’s wise to use a light hand with jokes or funny anecdotes.  
  • Add personal or other appropriate anecdotes – this can give a personal slant that connects the speaker to the audience. “I wonder if this has ever happened to you…”
  • Simplify language and read your draft aloud – remember, writing for speaking is different from writing for reading. If you stumble over a sentence when reading out loud, rewrite that sentence.
  • Stay in the active voice throughout – this will have much more impact on the audience.
  • Avoid blanket sweeping statements – a statement that can’t possibly be true will turn off an audience. An example: “Everyone knows that …”
  • Be positive – whenever appropriate, say what it is, not what it’s not – use the power of a positive voice. The subconscious processes only the positive, so when you say something like “real estate sales cannot get any worse,” you plant the seed that they can.
  • Make the tone conversational – The audience should feel as though the speaker is communicating with them.
  • Be ready to edit – Your client may love the speech as is; however, remain open to making changes if you are asked to. Often, a client looks at remarks differently once they are written down. That person might realize something should be added or removed. One of the speeches I wrote went through six drafts before being approved. The client was happy with the results and the fact that I didn’t take suggested changes personally. This point is appropriate for all business writing. 

How to get speech writing assignments

  • Your website
  • Business cards
  • Add speech writing to your Facebook, LinkedIn and other profiles.
  • Advertise to local organizations, wedding planners, new businesses, etc.
  • Corporate newsletters
  • Trade journals
  • Networking
  • Existing clients (this is a major source of speech writing jobs for me)
  • Word-of-mouth

I have written speeches and remarks for all kinds of events from Bar Mitzvahs to condominium openings. You can too. My motto is: If you write well, you can write anything well.

From a college creative writing course to a freelance writer earning six-digit figures yearly, Dorothea Helms has come a long way, baby. Now semi-retired, she is still in demand for her writing/editing services, including ghostwriting speeches for business professionals. Her work has appeared in dozens of publications including Chatelaine, CBC.ca/Parenting, The Globe and Mail, Canadian Architecture & Design, LICHEN Arts & Letters Preview, Stitches the Journal of Medical Humour, and Homemakers, to name a few. Yes, four of those publications are no longer in existence, but Dorothea accepts no responsibility for their demise. Wherever Dorothea goes, humour follows.

Formatting With Calibre

Formatting With Calibre

 

Guest Blogger, Marie Gage

Creating Your Own Ebook

Last week, guest blogger Marie Gage, walked us through the process of creating an ebook for sale on the Amazon platform. Today, she shares how to create ebooks that you can freely share on your own. And she explains why, after publishing through Amazon, she chose this additional step.

No strings attached

I recently started working with Prolific Works, a company that brings authors together to distribute free copies or previews of their books in group offers. To participate, I needed to produce an ebook file of the first three chapters of my novel, plus appropriate front and back matter. I couldn’t simply modify the file created through Amazon.

After searching with the wizardry of Google, I found my answer: Calibre makes it incredibly easy. Downloaded for free, Calibre is an open-source program. (They do appreciate it when you choose to support them through a voluntary donation.) Unlike Amazon’s program, Calibre does not offer the .drm (digital rights management protection) but does everything else with minimal effort. If you decide you need .drm, you can purchase it from any one of a number of vendors. But be prepared for the monthly fees.

NOTE: Calibre works best for files that do not have “fixed” elements. A fixed element is one that should not be moved around when readers change the size of text or the orientation of their ebook reader or app. All of my children’s books have fixed elements in the layout. So, I had to first turn each page into a JPG image before using Calibre. As a result, readers can’t adjust the text size on any of these ebooks.

Calibre screen shot: Opening screen

The process is easier for a book that is predominantly text. Follow along on the screen shots of the Calibre software.

After downloading the Calibre program:

  • press the Add Book button, find the Word file for your book and load it
  • press the Edit Metadata button and fill in the fields with appropriate information about the book
  • change the cover picture by uploading the cover file for your ebook

NOTE: Once you press the Edit Metadata button, add your key words in the box titled Tags (more about the importance of key words in last week’s post.) Separate each key word with a comma. Next. select Convert Books from the Calibre header.

Your screen will now look like this:

In the top right corner select the ebook format from the many listed formats to choose from. The most popular is .epub but you might want .mobi or .pdf.

  • EPUB is compatible with most ebook readers and analogue apps
  • MOBI is the format used exclusively by Amazon and is compatible with Kindle readers and apps
  • PDF is compatible with any PDF reader and is easily clicked and uploaded on most computers NOTE: without the ability to change text size and spacing on ereaders, PDF may not be ideal for a long book

Suffice it to say that readers will have their preferred reading device and you might consider offering your ebook in more than one format.

Trouble shooting tips

Take note of the options on the left-hand side of the screen if you experience problems with your first conversion attempt. You may find your text is not converting the way you want it to. The most likely additional choice to make would be to press the EPUB output button and choose either EPUB2 or EPUB3.  EPUB2 is still Calibre’s default so you must make a conscious choice if you want the upgraded format. EPUB3 is essentially an update to the sophistication of EPUB2. EPUB3 allows for easier navigation and some fancier elements such as embedded video.

Older ereaders don’t support the EPUB3 format. However, EPUB3 has been around since May 2010 and most readers will have upgraded their devices by now. For my novel, I didn’t require the EPUB3 so I used the default setting.

When you have made your output selection, press OK near the bottom right of the screen and you will see a circle begin to move around. Don’t worry, you can’t miss it as a big arrow comes up and bounces to show you where it is. When it stops, you can select a second format and press OK again and repeat until you have all the formats you want.

Press the click to open button and review your ebook file(s).

NOTE: You will need a program on your computer that is compatible with the file output chosen. For EPUB this is Adobe digital editions. For MOBI, this is the Kindle App on whatever device you use.

Picture this

One final, yet critical, cautionary note: Diagrams or pictures in your Word document must be downsized outside of the Word document. You can’t simply click and drag to change the size of an image; it won’t translate well into an ebook. Instead, use Photoshop or another photo editor program to change the actual size of the file to the appropriate dimensions for an ebook. All images must be no more than 800 pixels (px) tall by 550 px wide, which is the actual size of an ebook reader screen.  

I cannot tell you how many professionally created ebooks I have read, and I do mean from mainstream publishers, with images that cannot be seen on my ebook screen.

I used to believe the issue was the ebook format and there was nothing I could do about it. For my novel, I had two maps I wanted to include. Once more using the magic of Google, I found and followed the advice to resize images outside the Word file before converting the file to an ebook.

I couldn’t believe how clearly the maps showed.

If you wish to see how clear an image can be on an ebook reader, I invite you to read my novel.

Marie Gage lives and writes in beautiful Haliburton County, Ontario. Creative writing became a part of her life a during genealogical research that unearthed some tantalizing tidbits in her family history. She joined a memoir writing group, expecting to finish that one project and be on to the next interest.  Instead, she began to see everything as a story. In the past five years, she’s self-published numerous photo books, four children’s picture books and her debut novel, A Ring of Promises. Capturing her paternal grandparents’ transition as they immigrated to Canada from England and Scotland, her novel weaves the facts of their intriguing lives into a compelling story. 

Self-Publish Your Ebook

Self-Publish Your Ebook

It’s been our pleasure to work as editors with various writers, helping to refine and ready manuscripts for submission and/or publication. One of our clients, Marie Gage, is an indie author of four picture books and a recently released historical novel. In today’s guest blog, she shares her experience preparing her manuscripts for ebook and print publication with Amazon.

Guest blogger, Marie Gage

I wanted to offer readers both ebooks and print books, so I chose to create my books independently. I’ve used both Amazon and Calibre to format my material, but for today, I’ll focus on developing your ebook for sales through Amazon.

Creating an ebook is easy when you work with one of the websites that sell your book for you. Amazon offered me a relatively simple process to upload a word document and have it converted to a .mobi file, compatible with the Kindle reader and Kindle apps. My historical novel follows characters on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, so I liked that my book became available worldwide through Amazon (but you can choose to limit distribution of your book to specific regions.)

First things first

  • Before you can upload your file, create an account with Kindle Direct Publishing. It’s a bit more complicated than setting up most accounts because you need to input banking and tax information so they can pay you when your books sell. Notice I say “when”—I’m always the optimist. 
  • Fill in responses to a variety of questions such as “title” and “keywords.” Readers use keywords in the Amazon search box and it’s what Amazon uses to populate what customers are offered. You want your book associated with keywords that people use but are not so competitive as to result in your book never being shown. The keyword must also be relevant to what the customer sees in the description of your book. Using “Romance” for a cookbook will not bring you readers. Here’s a quick introductory course in how to choose keywords.

MARIE RECOMMENDS: Do the research about keywords before choosing the final title for your book. Consider adding a subtitle that strengthens your placement. Once you have published through Amazon, you can change the keywords but you cannot change the title on your ebook or print book. You can change the subtitle but ONLY on the ebook, not the print book. NOTE: Keywords in the title and subtitle have more impact on Amazon’s selection process than those in the form you complete before uploading your book.

Amazon allows more than one word in each of the keyword spaces and indexes them together and separately. For example: “Romantic” and “Comedy” when placed in the same box will be indexed alone as “Romantic” and “Comedy”, as well as together as “Romantic Comedy”. Thus you have a chance of being presented with any one of the three terms typed into the search box. However, it is not wise to flood these spaces with every possible word. You will annoy the Amazon staff, who check your work for relevancy, and may end up not indexing any of the words.

Next steps

  • Fill in the field for the book’s description. Put on your marketing hat and figure out what you want to say here that will attract the attention of the reading public. You want the description to be so intriguing that it will entice readers to click the “buy” button. What is the hook that makes your book special? Don’t rush this process. When you are sure it’s ready, remember to insert the basic HTML text formatting to note each paragraph end, as well as any italics and bolding. Otherwise, you’ll have one long paragraph with no italics or bolding.
  • Save and advance to the Kindle Ebook Content Page.  A major benefit of publishing on an already available sales platform is that digital rights management (a .drm suffix) can be added to decrease piracy of your ebook. The protection is not foolproof and there’s controversy about whether it’s necessary, but I feel better knowing it’s there. A major downside is that it may penalize purchasers who wish to transfer their purchase to another device. NOTE: On Amazon you have to press the correct button to turn on this function. Once the book is published you are not permitted to change this selection.
  • Decide if you want an ISBN. You do not need an ISBN (International Standard Book Number) for an ebook on Amazon, but if you have one and wish to use it you can input it. Canadians can obtain one through Library and Archives Canada and there’s no charge. NOTE: You cannot reuse an ISBN from a book you’ve already published elsewhere. Also, print and ebook formats will need separate numbers. 

Getting closer…

  • Upload the file of the interior of your book and a separate file with the cover. Make sure you have a cover that will be noticed among all the others on the page and is consistent with the genre of your book. Launch the previewer, check it carefully and press APPROVE. Or more likely, go back to your original file, correct the errors and repeat the approval process until it is perfect. 
  • Press APPROVE and advance to the Kindle Ebook Pricing page. You will be asked to make decisions about the price. The system will suggest a price based on what it considers to be “other similar ebooks”. The final decision is yours.
  • Choose a compensation package. The options depend upon exclusivity of your book to Amazon. If you wish to have it added to the Kindle Select program, you give Amazon exclusivity for the ebook only. Note the delivery charge that Amazon subtracts from your royalty. It’s often quite small but for picture books, the charge can eat up most of your profit. The only way to decrease the cost of delivery charges for picture books is to decrease the size of the file. See this article for instructions on this process as it relates to picture-intensive ebooks.

And…voila!

  • After completing the process you will be prompted to upload a print book or associate a print book with the ebook. It will take up to 72 hours before you get the email saying your book is live on Amazon and it can take a week or more before it is live in all markets. 

Next time, I’ll share my experience of creating ebooks without depending on an ebook sales platform. Books you create on Amazon or similar sites are not yours to distribute as you choose and there are times when you need to have that freedom.

Marie Gage lives and writes in beautiful Haliburton County, Ontario. Creative writing became a part of her life a during genealogical research that unearthed some tantalizing tidbits in her family history. She joined a memoir writing group, expecting to finish that one project and be on to the next interest.  Instead, she began to see everything as a story. In the past five years, she’s self-published numerous photo books, four children’s picture books and her debut novel, A Ring of Promises. Capturing her paternal grandparents’ transition as they immigrated to Canada from England and Scotland, her novel weaves the facts of their intriguing lives into a compelling story. 

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Thread Backstory into Your Narrative So the Stitches Don’t Show

Guest blogger Heidi Croot

Backstory threatens to crowd out my closet. This dark cloak? That frilly dress? Those dusty trousers? I write memoir and every garment has been on my body. It all happened. It’s all true. I want each outfit to have its turn on the page.

Fiction writers and I share the same dilemma. What if we dare to toss a backstory that turns out to be the very one we should have kept?

Desperation made me dare. My manuscript was too long, and backstory was to blame. Several writing-craft books and webinars later, I’ve learned a few things about decluttering, fit, timing and how to dress the main story with backstory in a way that appeals to readers.

Decide What to Throw Out

Image by Elena Sannikova from Pixabay

Before I could declutter, I needed to understand that backstory explains things readers need to know. Sometimes it’s a mini-story: how the character’s ordinary world ticked along before trouble arrived or a bygone trauma shapeshifted a character’s personality.

Other times backstory is information, such as how the invented world works in fantasy or science fiction.

Either way, “less is more.” According to Toni Morrison, “…it is what you don’t write that frequently gives what you do write its power.”

1. Toss Appeals for Sympathy

Some writers, says author Roz Morris in Past Mastery, a Jane Friedman-sponsored webinar I attended in July, drop in a calamity from the past out of a desire to generate a dose of sympathy for a character. The annoyed reader waits in vain for the calamity to mean something.

I did this when I dropped a reference to my great-grandmother dying by suicide, a tragedy that slays me but had no bearing on the narrative. Out it came.

My mother’s tragedy was contracting polio when she was eight. Thankfully, I realized the story wasn’t about her polio. It was about how this early trauma warped her worldview and injured every relationship that should have been important to her.

2. Save Your Cast-offs
Image by Sophie Janotta from Pixabay

Marie Kondo-ize your closet by examining every backstory garment. For each, ask:

  • Does the reader need to know this?
  • How does this episode propel the main story forward?
  • Will cutting this set the reader adrift?
  • Is the relating of this backstory triggered by a main story event?
  • Is this scene or slug of information a call for sympathy that goes nowhere?
  • Does the incident help to tell the protagonist’s story or another character’s story?

Culling can be brutal. I comforted myself by building a special closet at the bottom of my manuscript, out of Kondo’s clutches. Sign on the door: Private. I move beloved old outfits here when they don’t fit the main story. Someday, these backstories may inspire their own narratives.

Threading So the Stitches Don’t Show

Having decluttered, the next step is to dress the manuscript in essential outfits in a way that lets it carry off backstory with natural grace.

1. Wait for Thirst

Readers want backstory, but have limited patience for it, especially in the early pages. The writer’s job is to make readers thirst for it, and then deliver one glass of backstory at a time, at just the right moment.

Image by Gary G from Pixabay

What creates thirst in a reader? Curiosity.

What creates curiosity? Emotion—a steady drip of emotional intrigue and engagement. Who, on a first date, wants to hear the other person’s biographical details in the first 15 minutes? We long for those later, when romance makes us eager to sit across the picnic table until dawn.

Readers, says Morris, don’t want facts. They want feels.

2. Show Readers the Gap

But there’s an exception, one that writers sometimes overlook. A critical plug of backstory that readers need early is what the character’s life was like before trouble arrives. Without that, they can’t gauge the impact or feel the related emotion.

Show the “before” early. Make it brief, vivid, perhaps your opening scene. “Follow the character’s expectations,” Morris says. What had the protagonist intended to do that day, before Pandora’s Box flew open?

My narrator expected another day of tranquil living with her husband in their country home. She comes downstairs for lunch. He’s heating soup. She reaches for the mail on the counter. Dread rises in her throat when she sees the envelope with the familiar handwriting.

Readers feel the anxiety because, having had some early backstory, they understand what she risks by opening that letter.

3. Animate Backstory with Scene

Writers can “tell” backstory or “show” it.

Showing is better.

Flashback eases the reader into a dramatic scene from the past, complete with character, setting, plot, conflict and resolution. If the scene satisfies curiosity ignited by the main story, it can be whatever length it needs to be—including its own chapter.

Another way to animate backstory is by having one character share an anecdote or instructions with another who needs to hear it. Michael Crummey does this splendidly in Sweetland when the main character spars with a visiting government official, giving us a glimpse of “ordinary life” and how the growing conflict threatens it.

Sometimes a “tell” cannot be avoided: a biographical detail, an historical event, how something works. In these cases, deliver the information in short, engaging bursts at the moment of keenest thirst.

4. Use Logic to Shift into Backstory

Readers want a reason to be interrupted out of main story. Moments of reflection, discovery or epiphany serve as a water slide into backstory.

Image by ArtTower from Pixabay

Perhaps your character ruminates while driving to meet an old friend at the winery where the murder took place. Stumbles on a locked tin of old letters in the potting shed. Finds himself repeatedly sketching a mysterious face and wakes one morning knowing whose it is.

I bustled a fair amount of backstory into a pensive hour sitting at the foot of my father’s bed as he lay dying, giving my narrator a logical opportunity to muse on who was this man.

5. Signal Your Entrance and Exit

Readers like to know where they are in narrative time.

One way to signal a transition into backstory is through a change in tense. Start with a single use of past perfect: “She had estranged herself from her family.” Continue in simple past tense (less clunky): “She had written wrote threatening letters.” Signal your transition out with another single use of past perfect—“What she hadn’t foreseen was how she might need these people”—before returning to main story.

In Three Day Road, Joseph Boyden’s transitions are like lubricant. “I have paddled by myself…to get here,” Niska says. “My one living relation died in a faraway place”—and with that, Boyden rocks us into a story from the past.

Backstory can be necessary outfits and supportive undergarments for your main narrative, or mismatched, distracting accessories. Taking time to examine your wardrobe for fit will help make your manuscript the best dressed in town.

What are your backstory secrets and techniques? How do you make backstory as compelling as main story for your reader? We’d love to hear your discoveries.

Meet Heidi Croot

Heidi Croot lives in Northumberland County and is currently working on a memoir. She has been a finalist with The Writers’ Union of Canada, The Malahat Review, WOW! Women on Writing, Tulip Tree Publishing, and her work has been published in the inaugural edition of Linea magazine, the WCDR anthology, Renaissance, in Long Term Care magazine, and others.

Keeping in touch and keeping track

Keeping in touch and keeping track

Gwynn’s home county, Northumberland County, Ontario, has a vibrant arts community, including the dedicated and prolific Spirit of the Hills Writer’s Group of which Gwynn is a member. The group has been publishing a blog since April: A Journal in Time of Pandemic and LockdownToday’s guest post originally appeared on July 3 on that blog, and we reprint it here with author and poet Kim Aubrey’s permission.

Kim shares her personal story of keeping in touch with relatives far from home during the pandemic, and also her new found method of journalling that works for a time when our minds aren’t as focused or creative as we’d like.

Kim Aubrey

The call for lockdown came just as my husband and I were preparing to drive to New Hampshire to care for my mother during her recovery from surgery. Her hip replacement was scheduled for March 18. On March 14, I read the Prime Minister’s online message advising Canadians to stay home, and my husband read that our health insurance would probably not cover us if we went to the States.

The next day I talked to my younger brother M. in Texas. He prepared to step in and take care of Mom.

The stress mounts

“We can’t come,” I told my mother. “Maybe you should postpone your surgery.”

“Not going to happen,” she said, determined to go ahead with the hip replacement which would relieve her pain.

But on March 16 the surgeon’s office called her to reschedule for May.

My middle brother E. survived a terrible traffic accident when he was nineteen. Since then he’s lived with a brain injury. He and Mom share a house and are company for one another, but during the past few years, he’s had trouble keeping his balance and has suffered a few bad falls.

On March 19, he fell for the second time in the space of a week. Mom called an ambulance, which took him to the Emergency Room. Luckily, he didn’t break any bones, but he was in pain for over a month. I wanted to be there to help my mother and brother, but all I could do was call by phone and Skype, remind him to ice his shoulder, remind her to take the anti-inflammatory pills the surgeon had prescribed.

As May approached, I waited for the surgeon to postpone again, but it didn’t happen. My brother M. once again agreed to stay with Mom during and after her surgery. Despite my worries, the surgery was a success, no one got sick, and Mom has had a good recovery.

New routines needed

Since mid-March I’ve been talking to her and E. every day. I used to call once or twice a week, but knowing I can’t visit anytime soon and aware of the danger the virus poses, I feel the need to check in more often. It’s become part of my pandemic routine, like working on my novel, online yoga and Nia classes, and the journal I’ve been keeping since December, inspired by an exercise in Lynda Barry’s wondrous book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor.

Barry’s book is based on the writing/drawing classes she taught at the University of Wisconsin. I’m a fan of her comics and have been wanting to write/draw a graphic novel for many years now. To prepare myself, I started doing a couple of the exercises Barry set her students—a quick daily self-portrait and daily lists of seven things done, seven things seen, and one thing heard, along with another quick drawing.

I’m grateful I began this practice before the lockdown as it’s been an easy and satisfying way to keep track of these pandemic days.

Meet Kim Aubrey

Kim Aubrey’s stories, essays, and poems have appeared in journals and anthologies, including Best Canadian Stories, Event, Numero Cinq, Room and The New Quarterly. Her story collection, What We Hold in Our Hands, won an Honorable Mention in the Bermuda Literary Awards. Kim leads an annual writers’ retreat in Bermuda.

Using Facebook to submit

Using Facebook to submit

Writescape’s summer contest is over, but for writers, the process of submitting is never over. We’ve noticed on Facebook, that Writescape Retreat alumnus Lisa Reynolds has been submitting relentlessly, and succeeding! Her poem “Midday in a Café” was accepted by the online literary journal, Loud Coffee Press, and her entry was chosen by PonderSavant.com for its One-liner Abound contest.

Not just that, but she has had works published or accepted by intriguing sources: groups that fight world hunger, or support women’s issues or an international online Berlin-based arts/cultural/politics magazine called The Wild Word.

So we asked her: How do you find all these interesting markets? How do you pick the ones that work for you?

Guest Blogger – Lisa Reynolds

I used to scan the internet for hours, trying to locate reputable contests, blogs, journals and other places to send my work. This strategy was not only draining but time consuming. I ended up submitting short stories and poetry I already had on file instead of writing fresh pieces which were more in line with the aesthetic and vision of the magazines, anthologies and online publications I sought publication in.  

When rejections came back, I knew I had to change things up before my self-confidence plummeted and I stopped submitting altogether.

This is when I decided to use Facebook as a resource to find submission options.

A Wise Decision

I’m happy to say it was a wise decision. In the past three months, ten of my works have been accepted for publication. Although I am no expert, I increased my chances of success with these five steps:

  • Join Facebook Groups

I am a member of Facebook groups that post poetry and writing contests. Some of these groups are Public while others are Private, requiring three to five basic questions be answered prior to acceptance.

Although I initially found the high number of members in these groups intimidating (for instance, the Calls for Submission Group has 65K private members), I didn’t let fear of competition deter me from joining. I focused on the positive, believing the popularity of these groups meant they were credible.

  • Be Selective

When perusing markets posted in these groups, I was able to quickly eliminate those that didn’t appeal to me because of the type of literary form, theme, requirements in terms of length, and/or deadline.

After saving my preferred choices in my Facebook portfolio, I created an Excel spreadsheet so I had a tangible list on hand. Then I focused my energies on reviewing the submission guidelines for each choice in detail.

  • Do Your Research    

Reducing my longlist of submission options to a manageable shortlist was easier than I expected.

With more time available to research past issues of magazines, read previous contest winners’ works and check out blog archives, I was able to determine whether my writing fit their preferred style and had a chance of being accepted.

  • Find Your Personal Fit

It wasn’t long before I noticed my selections gravitated towards certain publishers: those that published works that related to my themes of interest, particularly social justice.

This led to self-reflection and the realization that I wanted to write about issues that mattered to me. I wanted to be a small part of supporting charities, saving wildlife, fighting hunger, feeding the homeless, advocating for children and women in crisis, and other social justice issues. When I write about these issues, I believe my voice is sincere and authentic. Perhaps that is why they been have been chosen for publication.

  • Share with other writers

Having a target list of places to submit to and constant deadlines keeps me writing regularly. But for me, the most exciting part is the domino-effect of sharing. This mindset has helped me remain humble and committed to my writing practice.

I regularly post on my Facebook page to encourage others to submit, and I am overjoyed when I receive messages from writers saying, “Did you see this one?” It’s a wonderful feeling to share and celebrate our successes together.

Using Facebook as a resource to locate contests and other markets has worked for me. I hope it works for you too.

Below are a few links to groups that you may find helpful. Good luck!

Lisa Reynolds is a teacher, writer, and proud member of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region, Ontario. Her poetry and short stories are published in several print and online publications. She lives in a waterfront community east of Toronto.

Press Send Already!

Press Send Already!

Guest Post – Donna Judy Curtin

Now that things in Canada seem to be settling back into a form of normal, perhaps it’s time we gave more focus to getting published.

This week we welcome Writescape alumnus, Donna Judy Curtin as she confesses her submitting oops! and shares what she learned from it. You can find other writing-related blogs by Donna at Ascribe Writers blog.

It seems some days, I never learn from my mistakes.

I come from a long line of bad spellers. My mother has a t-shirt that reads: “Bad spellers of the world, UNTIE!” As much as it is funny, it is true. I come by it honestly.

Combine that with my vivid imagination and propensity to tell stories and you have a unique situation. If I don’t have the word in a moment, in life, in my writing—then I just make it up. I figure I can always insert the proper word later.

You would think, from the number of examples I can remember of my utterly dismal performance, that I would improve and learn how to re-read my work before submitting.

However, recent events would suggest otherwise.

I sent in an application for Pitch Wars, a competition run by an incredibly positive writing community, where if you are lucky enough to be chosen, a “Mentor” will provide feedback on your unpublished novel, and then you, the “Mentee”, can pitch your novel in an exclusive Pitch Wars Twitter party.

Well, on the last day for submissions, I proudly pressed ‘SEND’ on my application and then a day later, I got a confirmation email, only to discover, with horror, I had addressed the query letter to ‘Dear Mentee’ instead of ‘Dear Mentor’.

 I may as well have just written: “Go ahead; press delete now; this dummy doesn’t even know who’s helping who!”

 BUT… at least I sent it.

Yes, I submitted something.

And here is what I learned in the process:

  1. Learn from your common mistakes. We all tend to repeat our own tragic stories. Keep a list of your common misdemeanors so that when you are editing that next novel, you can return to that list and clean up those repeating words or run on sentences. Decide what you will do differently the next time and hold yourself accountable
  2. Search out amazing critique partners (CP). Not only do you need to work on your craft, you need CPs who will be your fresh eyes and be honest with you. A fresh perspective can shine light on that plot flaw or incorrectly used word and if they are good CPs, they will tell you when you are ready—or when you are not—to submit.
  3. Fear of making a mistake is a double-edged sword. You need to keep this in balance. This fear pushes me to edit and then edit again. To read and re-read my work. I think we have all heard a published author groan about the mistake they found the moment they opened their shiny new book. But they have a book! Had they never put themselves out there—there would be no book. Don’t let your fear prevent you from ever pressing SEND.
  4. Sleep on it. Although you may think you are ready. Stop. Don’t press that button yet. Take a break. Walk away from it and come back with fresh eyes. It is amazing what you miss, or skip, or spell incorrectly. Let it stew for a bit and come back to it.
  5. Forge ahead. You must press SEND eventually. Do it!

I know my writing will never be perfect. However, I will keep trying to improve. Cross your fingers for me, as I wait on that query and hope that at least one of my Pitch Wars “Mentee’s” has a good sense of humour.

 Donna Judy Curtin

Donna Curtin practices veterinary medicine in Bruce County, Ontario, close to her poultry and cash crop farm where she lives with her husband and two children. As a compliment to her veterinary career, she aspires to become a published novelist. In Dr. Curtin’s writing, animals play important characters just as often as people.