Friday, March 29, 2013

Who Am I to Write My Story?

I've made my living as a ghostwriter or collaborator since 1984. Because of that, I regularly receive letters from people who want me to write their story. They usually start with, "All my friends tell me I've lived such an interesting life and it should be in print."

Maybe it's worthy of being in print. Maybe not.

What many people think of their "story" may be enough for one article. For instance, one man contacted me and said he had been shot in the head, neck, and left leg by two intruders who broke into his house. They assumed he was dead, but he was able to call 911. Paramedics rushed him to the emergency room.

Powerful incident, isn't it?

The question to ask (which I did) was, "What happened after that?"

"I survived."

I tried gently to explain that would make a good article, an ezine piece, and probably a media interview. "But it's not a book."

It wasn't a book because nothing unusual or newsworthy happened to the person except for one serious trauma. That's not enough to sustain interest for 80,000 words.

A few books, you could argue, are based solely on a single event. That's true—rare but true—and it's because the event was newsworthy. A publisher issued a contract, a writer hurried the manuscript out in two months, and it received a vast amount of publicity for a few weeks. Those books are usually out of print within a short period of time.

My question for this blog was "Who am I to tell my story?" Unless you have had an outstanding life of achievements, or many tragedies that turned into triumphs, the chances are that most publishers won't be interested.

My life may be interesting to me; 
but would editors and readers agree?

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Difference Between Memoirs and Autobiographies (Part 2 of 2)

We write memoirs and autobiographies in first person, and they are an attempt to convey a true account of what happened.

We expect both to give us personal information and let readers see into our thoughts and actions.

The purpose of the two books differs. The memoir focuses on specific instances. The White House Years would be a good example. Memoirs usually cover a brief span of time, and their main purpose is to draw the reader's attention to a specific theme or circumstance.

Look at this title: We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young: Ia Drang—The Battle That Changed the War in Vietnam. Harold G. Moore wrote about a particular period in history and his subtitle explains his purpose.

The book I wrote for Don Piper called 90 Minutes in Heaven has some biographical information, but the focus is on his death-and-return-to-life and his recuperation. That's properly a memoir.

However, I wrote the autobiography of Dr. Ben Carson called Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story. The subtitle makes it clear that we tried to cover his entire life from his birth until we wrote the book. Gifted Hands came out in 1990 and has remained a good, steady seller. The 20-plus years since publication doesn't make it less an autobiography.

I'm careful to make the distinction 
that a memoir relates to a limited 
period of time and events. 
The whole life is an autobiography.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Memoirs and Autobiographies (Part 1 of 2)

For the past few years, I see memoir used incorrectly—even by publishers. A memoir refers to anecdotes or events in a person's life. A book of memoirs is a collection of such anecdotes.

An autobiography recounts the author's entire life, usually from birth until the time of the writing. A memoir focuses on one aspect or period of the author's life.

For instance, if Hillary Rodman Clinton wrote a memoir, she might call it A Million Miles to refer to the 973,000 miles she traveled while she was Secretary of State. If she wrote her autobiography, she might call it Being My Own Person. This second, not-very-good title would be an examination of her entire life.

I know the difference between memoir and autobiography 
and I use the terms correctly.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Watch Those Transitions (Part 9 of 9)

Here are the final types of transitions to consider.

10. List options. You probably use them all the time, but here are a few: doubtless, of course, even if, certainly, granted that, to be clear, to be certain, however, yet, notwithstanding, conversely, whereas.

11. Refer back to a person, thought, or action. He, she, it, no one, all, few, some, who, whom, all but five, except for, all but six, without exception.

Now that I'm aware of the need for transitions, 
I write excellent ones.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Watch Those Transitions (Part 8 of 9)

Transition refers to a word phrase that moves readers forward. If you make your shifts smoothly, quickly, and logically, your readers probably won't be aware. That will point to your mastery of the craft.

Here are other types of shift agents:

8. Order of Importance. First, in the first place, furthermore, equally important, best, above all, just as important, of minor (or major) concern.

9. Transitions of Place. Before TV replaced radio for drama programs, a common transition would be something like, "Meanwhile, back on the ranch" (or "in Washington," or "in Bill's drugstore.") That worked even though they're a bit heavy for today. Here are three simple ones that work: After we reached, in Atlanta, Waiting on the other side of the bridge.

Now that I understand transitions, 
they're easy to write.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Watch Those Transitions (Part 7 of 9)

Let's try a few more ideas on how to switch easily from one thought to another without jarring your readers.

5. Compare and Contrast. But is the most common word. Too often writers use but when they mean and (and vice versa). Think of but as the prelude to contradicting or questioning your previous statement. That's not literally the case, but many students have found that idea helpful. Besides but, you might use similarly, just as, likewise, equally, despite, otherwise, although that's true, still, yet, in spite of.

6. Restrictions or qualifying statements. Even though, even if, although, not unless, occasionally, rarely, only.

7. Spatial order. Such words are easy to slip in and push your next thought forward: above, around, behind, in front of, beneath, below, adjacent, alongside.

The more I think about good transitions, 
the more skilled I become in writing them.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Watch Those Transitions (Part 6 of 9)

As an author, you need to keep your prose moving forward. Think of it as coming to an intersection and the lights are green all the way. Think of your irritation if you hit six red lights in a two-mile stretch. If you can picture that, you can understand the necessity of smooth, effortless, forward-motion writing without calling attention to the words.

To make your shifting easier, here are four suggestions.

1. Add to or illustrate your point. Use also, and, moreover, or, similarly, for instance, another thing, furthermore or some other word or phrase.

2. Summarize what you've already written. Use words such as finally, to sum up, in summary, in conclusion, thus, in brief, so, or at last.

3. The element of time makes a good transition. Here's where you can insert words such as later, now, then, until, after, afterward, at once, frequently, occasionally, soon, or sooner. Here's an example of how this works. I ate breakfast, then I went for a three-mile walk.

4. Cause and effect. You probably do this often without realizing that it's a shift in thought: because, as a result, as a consequence, therefore, or thus.

I continue to learn ways to make my writing smoother 
by writing transitions.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Watch Those Transitions (Part 5 of 9)

Shifting smoothly means you do nothing to make readers lose their concentration. When I'm reading, many times I've had to ask, "Huh?" That means the author failed me.

So I'll give you several hints on how to change from one thought to another. (So is a transition because I connected the two thoughts.)

1. Repeat the main idea or final word from the preceding paragraph as the opening sentence of the next. (This is what I've demonstrated so far.)

2. Repeat a key word from the preceding paragraph in your first sentence. (In Part 4, I repeated weakness.)

3. Build on connecting words so that readers are not aware that you're moving from one thought to another.

4. Use a phrase that connects the two ideas.

5. Inform your readers you are moving to a new subject. You could start your new paragraph with even so, despite that, or by contrast. Such terms become what I call invisible words because people are hardly aware of their presence. But without their presence, readers blink.

6. Set up divisions by breaking the article down into sections. As I've written in a previous blog entry, you can do that with a transition mark. Or you can give subtitles (which I usually put in bold), or number them as I've done by numbering seven points. Bullets work the same way.

7. Use the echo method. Here's an example. If James didn't appreciate her cooking, Hiram would. Hiram did.

If you can't find a fitting transition, go over your material again. Perhaps it's a problem with the work order. You might remove the material and make it a sidebar. Perhaps save the material for another article or chapter.

Because transitions are important for good reading, 
I make them important in my writing.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Watch Those Transitions (Part 4 of 9)

Not having bridge words between thoughts—usually between paragraphs—is a weakness of many writers.

I became aware of that weakness years ago when a major publisher hired me to go through a manuscript they had bought and they wanted me to write transitions. (I made an easy shift between the two paragraphs above by starting with an awareness of that weakness, which repeats the final words.)

That book (another transition), had extremely good content, but the author jumped from thought to thought. The publisher paid me well and I learned from the experience.

I didn't want readers to scratch their heads and ask, "How did he get there?" (Did you notice my lack of a smooth shift from my experience to people asking?)

I could have started the second paragraph this way: Not only did they pay me money but they made me sensitive to changing thoughts. I didn't want readers . . .

If I'm aware of connecting one thought with the next, 
transitions won't trouble me.