Ten points to remember in the art of story telling
and narrative, in memoir writing.
good plot and well-defined characters, brought to life by dialogue.
Structuring a narrative is the most important thing you’ll do. There’s
the narrative thread, unfolding story, for the whole book. Then
chapter by chapter, building to climactic moments, creating dialogue and
content Think about the emotional impact of what happened to you. You
really want the reader to ‘get’ that, to be involved from the start. The
emotional content for all the other characters involved comes next and how they
interact with you and each other.
point. Begin at a really interesting point in your story – a pivotal
moment.The story should grip the reader from the opening sentence.
Then work back, showing how the story got to that point..
the narrator/protagonist – in memoir, that’s you. This is vital to
keep up reader interest in carrying on reading so they really want to know what
happens to you.
– that’s not your mood, it’s the mood changes of the story. If
you have something dramatic happen, which carries on for a few chapters until
it’s resolved, maybe you need a chapter where everyone calms down, here and
6.How to end a
chapter? Each chapter should end in such a way that the reader
HAS to turn to the next page to find out what happened next. The links
between chapters should flow smoothly.
I wrote my first memoir, my editor told me. ‘It’s like a series of anecdotes’.
So I went back and re-wrote beginnings and endings of chapters so it flowed
is unique, whatever the genre. Build the reader's involvement slowly, take
them down a few tangents. Don’t reveal it all straightway, so it's not
clear where the story’s going. Keep some surprises for the end.
Build the reader's anticipation.
8.Setting is important, culture, country,
rural,urban. Your story will start/end in a specific
place. Think about the place and how the characters move around the
objects – it’s like writing a scene for a play.
sound smell. Make your references to these unusual and un-clichéd.
Don’t for example refer to the sparkling turquoise sea, or the white
glare of the sun. Try and think of unusual ways to say these things.
10.Endings: If you set
up a puzzle or conundrum or mystery about what’s happening in your story,
keep teasing the reader about how it’s going to end. The story should move
towards some kind of resolution, some kind of satisfaction of the plot that
ties together the whole story. You can do this just as well with memoir as with
I wrote a long poem called The Spriggan for Halloween and I'll be performing live as a witch with two other witches Rosie Canning and Lyndsay Bamfield - they'll be reading haunting tales ... woooo woooo! ... and other story tellers at
The Little Green DragonAle House
928 Green Lanes
London N21 2AD
Buses 329 (from Enfield and Palmers Green) and 125 (from Southgate, Whetstone and Finchley) stop right outside the Little Green Dragon. The nearest train stations are Winchmore Hill or Grange Park (5 to 10 min walk). The nearest underground station is Southgate (Piccadilly Line), then catch 125 bus.
Tuesday Night 31st October 2017 - 7 pm
Here's an extract.... The Spriggan is a faerie/Green Man figure from Cornish folklore - who guards ancient sites and ruins...
The Parkland Walk is an old railway track that closed down in the 1950s when Mr Beecham decided that many small railway stations were no longer economic. There was a huge outcry but they closed anyway - stations that closed along The Parkland Walk were such as Crouch End and Muswell Hill. Many years later it was rescued from brambles and oblivion by a conservation/ permaculture group, who commissioned a statue of a 'spriggan' to be made by a sculptress. She built it into the side of one of the arches beside a short tunnel, made of brick.
Dusk is falling on the
the last remnants of walkers
quicken their step
they’ve heard the rumours, and
the rumours are right.
The goat man’s eyelids open a
The woman pushing her pram
hurries past. A low growl
starts deep in the throat of
the black dog tied to her pram …
the dog knows, oh yes he
he keeps his head low, stiff-legged
as they scurry past,
down the path and out onto
The last train chuffed its
way down this track in 1954.
Nature took over and time
stood still. Until in 1984,
the Parkland Walk was born. Banks of weeds and brambles
were cleared, now Nature was
to be conserved but controlled.
High up, where the walk
crosses a wide bridge
near Muswell Hill, the lights
of London are flickering on,
in a sea of twinkles across
to the Thames and beyond.
It’s a clear cold crispy
night and a full moon is rising.
The goat man lifts his grey
green head, stretches out
cold stiff limbs and looks to
the rising moon. He cocks his head,
listening …‘Can you hear it?
Can you hear it? His croaking voice,
rusty as old iron, speaks in
a hoarse whisper, to himself.
This is an extract from a chapter in my soon to be published book
Memoir Writing - How to Tell A Story From Your Life.
Facing Your Dragons - writing trauma and abuse.
I’ve so often been told,
'writing trauma is therapeutic isn't it?’.My answer is ‘ Hmmmm… maybe…’I’ve always found trauma difficult to write about, like some kind of
self-torture, re-traumatising yourself by reliving the event. And looking back I see, not just my sadness but how it affected those around me. I also see that so many people
(out of unconsciousness, ignorance) were insensitive to whatever trauma was being experienced. I end up feeling the sadness and grief again. The isolation of not being understood. So you don’t
always want to dwell on the traumatised past, you usually want to turn your back on it.Look to the future. However
sometimes in order to heal the past you MUST revisit it, examine it from
different angles, realise you were a victim, through no fault of your own, but you survived, you’re a
survivor. Then you might be able to move forward and let go.When you’ve come to a certain point where
that’s possible. And that point is different for everyone. Your ‘moving on’
point is unique to you. Accept that. Respect your own self-knowledge.
Some rules for writing about trauma or
1.Tell the story simply without being
mawkish, over-sentimental.Don’t go into
gory and over-dramatic detail.Keep the
writing spare and factual – showing what happened, not telling, don't wallow. Think of your reader standing beside you, watching the events unfold.
2.Take care of yourself – only write about
it when you are ready (it took me many years, to be ready to talk about losing a baby). You may never be ready to talk about some stuff. Stop when it
becomes overwhelming.You can push
yourself sometimes if you need to (only you know). Remember writing about the
trauma or abuse can often feel like being ‘re-traumatised/victimised’.
3.Be careful who you share or discuss or
show the writing to, the first time.Choose carefully. Some people may feel they should 'handle' you, be kind and sympathetic to you, do Oprah Winfrey pop psychology on you. Avoid these people.
5.Think about the target audience, the
readers of your memoir. Will they be moved, sad, angry when they read of your
experiences? Face it, often we readers buy books because we want to experience the writer's pain/drama/joy vicariously. . Let the
story unfold naturally.
6.Remember inspire yourself to face your dragons. Put some music on you like, pick up your pen(or your laptop}, and just write - see what comes out. Give yourself a surprise. _____________________________________________________________ Link to my memoir A Hippopotamus at The Table set in South Africa 1975-8
A memoir is a part of your life, a story from your life - its not the whole life.
you got a story that needs to be told?
A big event from your life? Do you want to explore how to plan it, write it,
print it and sell it? Do you want to know how to become an author, with a book
I’m running aWriting Memoir course
starting at 6:30 pm on Thurs Sept 28th
2017. There’ll be 8 one and a half hour sessions, the venue will be in North
London - near Turnpike Lane station (Piccadilly Line).
The cost is £12 per session, payable in advance ... for the whole course ie. 8 x £12.
week I’ll cover a different aspect of memoir writing – topics will be:
your story about?2. Plot and framework
Writer’s Voice. Show don’t Tell.
4. Character and description.
Art of Story-Telling. 6. Truth and libel.
8. Getting published - options? Marketing
There are short writing exercises and feedback at the start of every session.
Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org (Put Memoir Course in Subject line)and/or you can enrol and pay in advance at Meetup.com/London Memoir Writing Course.
Those who have done the course tell me they've really enjoyed it and want follow-up courses.
I'd love to hear from you so please feel free to get in touch. You can use the contact form to email me or we can connect through my blog, Facebook or Twitter
Memoir ...'we go to the genre not so much for detail or style as for “wisdom and self-knowledge,” for what the main character, who is always the author, has learned.'
from Memoir: An Introduction, by Thomas Couser
As a writer of memoir, I would say, that the above quote is at the essence of reading - or writing - memoir. I'm currently reading a book by Alison Morrison, called Dodging Elephants - I can't resist books set in Africa - they have the attraction of taking me there, to places I've been, I can 'see' and I understand. I live vicariously through the writer's experience of Africa and continually compare it to mine, maybe not the events but the sense of place and people. You see, my soul constantly calls me back to the land of my birth and when I'm there, when my plane lands, I'm too embarrassed to do it, but I want to fall on my knees and kiss the ground, like the pope. Instead, quietly and surreptitiously I bend down and touch the ground with reverence, because I'm home, the land of my birth. The thing is, I must have a split personality when it comes to my cultural identity. Although born in Africa, we left when I was three. I grew up in Wales, love and embrace Wales and it's culture and land and generally would see myself as Welsh. I have been back though, to Africa, lived there and visited the land of my birth quite a few times. I once went to an Amnesty International poetry evening - must have been in 2011. Four poets were on stage and each of them gave poetry readings which related to their different cultural identities, the lands where they grew up and had lived in.. I was so inspired by their poetry, that I went home and wrote two poems - one about my birthplace Bulawayo, Zimbabwe and the other about being Welsh and definitely NOT English. Which just goes to show ... the poem entitled Bulawayo was entered in an international poetry competition and, to my astonishment, won. The other poem, called Cymru am Byth (Wales for Ever) I read out recently, at the Poetry Society monthly Poetry@3 afternoon session - an open mike event where many experienced and beginner poets come together to read out 2 poems each. I was surprised to find that everyone laughed and enjoyed it and I got loud applause. Getting back to 'Dodging Elephants' a title which reminds me of my memoir title, ' A Hippopotamus at the Table', both those fabulous beasts, bring Africa to mind. But Alison's book is about a cycle race from Cairo to Cape Town, set in a very different era (recent history), while mine was set in apartheid South Africa in 1975. 'Wisdom and self knowledge' ... gained through experience? Her book - and I'm only half way through, has themes of fantastic endurance and determination in the face of huge physical obstacles. She is part of a group and must learn to adapt, support and be supported by her team. The main themes of my story are of immersing myself in Africa, survival, while dealing with the huge obstacles of apartheid and a police state, which formed the backdrop to our lives as surely as Table Mountain, which towered above our lives.. Tragedy knocked me back and I learned how to move forward from it, to put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. A different person left there, than the naïve one that had arrived two years before - both tougher and more fragile perhaps, with the mist a little thinner in front of my eyes. That's what those of us who read memoir wish to discover about the life of the author. Now I teach memoir writing, having graduated from the 'memoir writing school of life' by spending so many years trying to write that story. My book was published in 2015. Yes I have learned from my experiences, that's why I love to teach memoir, because so many of you out there have a story to tell. Maya Angelou says 'There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.' That quote will start my second book. My second book, called Memoir Writing, How to tell a Story from your Life will be out at the end of August. The third one - a second memoir, called Beyond the Bounds, set in London and Indonesia - will come out next year. Watch this space. Oh and a new Memoir Writing course will start in September(North London) - drop me a line if you're interested at email@example.com
My second memoir is in progress. Ages ago I entered Chapter One of 'Beyond the Bounds' into the Winchester Writers Festival, Memoir Competition and this week heard that I got a Highly Commended place in the competition. So that was good. Here's the link - Results - Memoir Competition. Actually I say 'in progress' but it got stalled at the end of Chapter 10 which I wrote in Morocco in March. Since then my attention's been on another book I'm writing - called Writing Memoir How to Tell a Story from Your Life which is nearly finished - another half chapter to write, plus some expanding on the other chapters, some art work to put in and it's done. Oh and the cover - there's a few contenders at the moment, but one seems to be more popular with all my networks. Watch this Space.
Someone just asked me about how I'm going to publish.... Are you sending it out to publishers? Well no, I consider myself a veteran Indie Author now. Just been reading a blog article by author Emily Benet on her publishing journey. She's just self published (having previously published the conventional way) her new book called The Hen Party - love the cover Emily. Check it out. We Indies have to support each other.
Her article is about the stigma that still attaches to being self-published. There's still an attitude amongst many that if a book is any good a big publisher will have taken it on. Otherwise it's probably badly written. Nowadays this is simply not the case. The attitude goes back to what were called 'vanity' presses, who charged lots of money to publish someone's book with a fancy cover, so they could give it out to family and friends. They did not worry about quality as long as they were paid. Many people got stuck on thinking self-publishing is in that category. NO. NOT ANY MORE I SHOUT. Amazon reports that a large percentage of their best -selling authors are now indie authors. I have often felt the dismissal of bookshops and others in the publishing world and authors even, towards indie authors.
Did you know that '70% of adult fiction sales 'were e-books last year'. Did you also know that 'in the October 2016 Author Earnings Report the Big 5 publishers share of the market continued to fall. Indie authors and Amazon imprints [now] account for over 50% of market share. Without smarter e-book pricing, traditional publishers will continue to see declining sales in that format'. Quotes are from this article.
When big publishers turn you down, as Emily Benet's article points out, it's often nothing to do with the quality of the writing. It's because they already have an author of similar genre or story type on their list. Or because they take a look at your genre/subject matter and feel they won't be able to sell it, it won't fit in the major sales categories of the moment. It doesn't matter how good the writing is. Emily is talking about fiction writing, but it applies to my area too - memoir writing, in a much bigger way. Memoir writers are often marginalised and seen as the poor relation that won't make money for the publishers. But there are many people out there like myself who love to read memoir, true life stories.
Take Mark Dawson, for example, he's an Indie author/crime writer who is currently making a reportedly six figure salary through Amazon and all the other e-publishing outlets. He's done this using his strategy (being used by increasing numbers of authors) of building up a reader/email list of devoted followers all eagerly waiting for the next John Milton book in the series [about a sort of flawed, ex MI5 assassin turned Robin Hood, trying and often failing to right the wrongs of his past]. Mark runs online courses for authors where he passes on his marketing strategies - if you can rake up the c. £500 for the course. He is currently in negotiation with a major TV company to film the series.
In this changing face of book publishing, where e-books already have 70% of the market share, why would you want to give up control of your book to the long process (c. 2 years) that a big publisher puts your manuscript through, when you can publish it yourself relatively easy and quickly. With careful editing, good writing skills and an excellent cover design (you might pay an editor/proof-reader and cover designer to ensure the finished product is professional), your book, with the right marketing, can sell well and you're not giving away most of the royalties to a publisher.
Today I have a guest author, who I commissioned to write this article on the subject of Writing Humour... I am currently writing a chapter on that topic in my soon to be published book WRITING MEMOIR, How to Tell a Story from Your Life . Dave is someone who knows a great deal about comedy, a lot more than I do. . someone who can walk into a room and have everybody laughing within seconds - so here's his article - the author? It's David Powell Davies.
The Use of Comedy/Humour in Memoir writing
(much of it can be applied to fiction writing too)
to Tap into your own Comedic Talents.
by David Powell Davies
It’s very easy to
tell a joke, but to tell it and have people laugh requires comic talent and not
everyone is a comedian. However everyone has a sense of humour and can find aspects of life and human and animal behaviour funny. The trick is, not to
try to be a funny somebody else, but to say what you find funny. How do you do
that? One way is by careful choice of vocabulary which illustrates what you
A joke :(I’ve literally just made this joke up to
illustrate the use of vocabulary and the pacing or rhythm of line and how it
adds to the humour of the situation.)
Ahmed is lying on
his hospital bed, seriously ill, he is hooked up to a life support machine. His
wife Putri is weeping by his bed side.
Ahmed: “Don’t cry
my dear. If I go I will meet Allah.”
Putri: “Oh don’t
say that Ahmed, don’t talk about going.”
Ahmed: “And I
will meet Mohammed and my 25 virgins.” Putri: “25 what!?” Ahmed: “I have
been promised them by Allah.”
Putri has stopped
crying, she leans forward with a steely glint in her eyes.
Putri: “Well good
luck,” she says switching off the life support with a smile.
A touch of dark humour, may not be 100% pc - many jokes aren't, but it’s about letting the picture that you've drawn of the
character create the humour in the mind of the reader. ‘Steely glint, good
luck. With a smile.’ The vocab is succinct and draws the picture clearly. Also
the pacing of “25 what!?” keeps the rhythm going whereas“What did you just say Ahmed?” would slow the
whole thing down. Choosing the right word is essential to humour in writing.
The only way to do that is practice, read it to yourself, choose again and
again until you find the right word.
Which leads on to
how a painful, dark, or tragic episode
in one’s life can have humorous facets about it. I’m thinking of the book
“Crow” and the coffin scene from my “Fragments Of An Isolated Childhood”. The
link between great sadness and sorrow and laughter is paper thin sometimes. A
character can say or do something which in retrospect makes you laugh in sheer
disbelief. A sombre, sad occasion can be hilarious if placed in a bizarre
situation. Dark situations have humour in them and the humour makes them
realistic. For example you might be writing about someone with a dysfunction or
a dysfunctional family. This can be shown more effectively if you show the
light with the dark. For some reason “My
Family And Other Animals”(Gerald
Durrell) springs to mind here. Basically the whole family is dysfunctional but the
humour is in the way that each of them reacts differently to a situation.
Gerald Durrell doesn’t try to be funny but his character descriptions are so
finely drawn, we see each of them behaving in their own bizarre way.
Anotherclassic example is Sue Townsend
“The Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13
A character that
features in your memoir might be funny in your memory. Why do you remember the person
as being funny? Did they always speak in a lugubrious manner. [Here Eeyore, from Winnie the Pooh springs to mind. He's so miserable, it's funny.]
Choose your vocabulary to enhance their mournful qualities. If they speak,
write what they say in a slow, plodding, gloomy way. Did they speak with a
stutter, a squeaky voice, or a lisp that you found funny. Again a careful
choice of vocabulary can recreate them in the reader’s mind.( e.g. Violet Elithabett Bott – ‘Just William’
girl with a lithp.)
I would say as a rule of thumb never aim to be
funny. If you’re not a comic, clown, comedian, or naturally funny person who is
always looking for and finding the humour in every situation, then it will
sound forced and stilted. However if a situation or experience you had at a
time in the past was amusing then think objectively about the experience and
pinpoint what it was you found funny. That will then be your focus as you
recount the moment. Do not try to mold it into being funny, it will sound
contrived. Just describe the moment and keep your focus on the core reason why
you found it funny. Again carefully choose your vocabulary to aid and
strengthen your core focus. Read it out
aloud to yourself. Does it make you smile? Yes? Then good you’ve tapped into
the humour of that moment. Remember if it makes you smile, then it will make
other people smile. It might not make some people smile but everybody’s humour
Timing. A comedian knows that if they delay the punch line by a second longer
than they should, then they have killed the joke. Or if they have unnecessary
words that delay or get in the way then the joke or story they are telling
loses its impetus. Ok so you are not a comedian but do not faff around, do not
waffle. Again focus on the incident and do not pad it out. Do not add words to
make it funny. Keep your writing sharp and to the point. Yes of course use
vocabulary that enhances the core humour in your story but be very selective
and cut out any unnecessary vocabulary that muddies or breaks the rhythm of
very useful in creating humour. Putting unexpected things side by side to
produce a funny contrast or highlight an absurdity. Some may remember John Cleese and
the two Ronnies in the ‘I’m Upper Class I look down on them, I’m Middle Class I look up to him and down on
him, (And then Ronnie Corbett looks up at them both and then says, ‘I get a
pain in the neck’ sketch. Absurd situation and contrast.
Another aspect of
juxtaposition is ‘the rule of three’. This is where the writer/speaker is
describing something and gives two similar examples to set/ create a pattern
but then completely surprises you by breaking the pattern.
For example :
Someone could be describing where they live, their environment.
It was a
beautiful day. The sun shone warmly on the daffodils outside, the birds singing
in the trees and the pig farm next door.
Or a touch of
1st woman : I see
Mrs Jones’s son is back from Oxford University.
2nd woman: Yes,
he’s such a clever boy and so handsome. 1st woman: Yes that's true .... [pause] A pity about his club foot. ************************************************************************************** Thanks Dave for those insights into writing humour. You reminded me of some very funny books and stories.
As part of the research I undertook for writing my memoir, I
travelled back to South Africa in 2007, for the first time in 29 years. The awful apartheid was
gone (although many remnants remain).Everything had changed.
land was still the same …. or was it? The rural area outside Cape Town where we’d
lived for 9 months, on 8 acres of bush near a pig farm – that was gone, now
buried beneath a shanty town a million strong called Khayelitsha.Table Mountain and the mountain range joining
it called the Twelve Apostles was still there and the glorious coastline with
golden beaches and sparkling ocean. No more 'whites only' beaches, open to all of South Africa's 'rainbow nation'.
But oh no! The lovely near-deserted, empty beach called Hout Bay surrounded by wooded hills, with a small
docks area for fishing boats, a place where we’d go braai (bbq) in the sand
dunes and help haul in the smaller fishing boats? What had happened here? Another shanty town had
built into the once rural woody hills around the beach, teeming with people. On
the far side of the beach, a large modern complex of shops had been built
including a huge Pick n Pay – that South African supermarket chain – to meet the demands
of all these people, these Cape mixed race people – many of whom were now
white-collar workers in Cape Town.
Never go back they
say, never go back, but if you’re a memoir writer sometimes you have to.Just be warned.Nothing will be the same.Someone said to me the other day, about
memoir writing – ‘People choose the memories they want to focus on, the ones
that relate to who they are now.’I don’t
know about that.All I know is that if
you're writing memoir, be careful when you go back.Hold on to the memories of how it was. Hold
those memories close to your heart. Because the present will trample all over them
and kick your past to dust if you’re not very careful.
My new 'how to' book Writing Memoir, How to Tell a Story from Your Life will be out next month. If you want to buy my memoir A Hippopotamus At The Table it's on Amazon - click on the title to get the link.
If you weren't able to join my course as its the wrong time and date for you, or you don't live in London, never fear, I'm about to publish a 'how to' book on the subject, in a few weeks time.
Here's a preview - an extract
This is a big question
and much discussed by writers, readers and the literati. Here’s a working
definition – it’s a part of your life, not the whole life.The whole life is an autobiography.A memoir could cover two weeks, two months,
two years or even five years of your life.Something happened to you in your chosen period of time that you want to
write about.Something different, possibly
something dramatic.May be it changed
your life in some way.
As a memoir writer, I
have often been told, ‘Why don’t you just tell your story as fiction – many
writers do?You avoid lots of problems
that way.’ Many writers decide it’s the only way to tell their story – they can
anonymise it and change the story around and fictionalise the characters
involved.That’s one option.
always liked to read memoirs, because I enjoy reading stories that are
‘true’.Often they are breathtakingly
extraordinary. When you’ve had something interesting, dramatic or extraordinary
happen in your life, you want to tell the true story, put it on record. These
stories are often better than fiction because you know they’re real. You may
feel (as I do), that you have a duty to tell some of your stories – if only for
historical reference for those born after many of the events. My first memoir -
A Hippopotamus at the Table was set
in 1970s South Africa, the apartheid era.What was it like to be there and observe that time? As an outsider? Those
who read my book might find that out.
What other reasons are
there to write memoir not fiction? Writing my own memoir gave me an insight
into the many pitfalls and challenges of the genre.