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Last Wednesday, I emceed the launch of Blaise van Hecke’s memoir The Road to Tralfamadore is Bathed in River Water. Here’s some of the praise for my efforts:

    ‘One of the unheralded emcees in entertainment today.’
          – Variety

    ‘A delight from start to finish.’
          – Oprah Winfrey

    ‘On this performance, surely an outside chance to host the 2019 Oscars.’
          – Empire

But that’s hardly surprising. However, this is a blog not about emceeing, but about memoir and autobiography. (If you’re wondering what the difference is between autobiography and memoir, an autobiography might be about somebody’s life, while a memoir will be about a certain time or a certain thing in that person’s life.)

When I subcontracted as an editor a quintillion years ago, I saw a lot of memoir and autobiography. A lot. And that’s great, because I believe everybody does have a story to tell. But a story is more than the sum of one’s life.

One thing I’d see popularly were autobiographies that were episodic – each chapter would be about something different. There’d be no chronology, so it could make them confusing to read.

Other autobiographies were sprawling tales of the years. They didn’t frame a story. They were just a recount of everything that had happened in that person’s life – and sometimes, what had happened before they were born, as the parents’ lives were also explored for context.

I love reading good memoirs and autobiographies, because what makes people become who they are fascinates me.

The best memoir I’ve read is tennis legend Andre Agassi’s Open, which looks at Agassi’s upbringing, his career, and him finding the person who he wanted to be – there’s a definitive arc there.

That’s important in memoir/autobiography/biography. What’s the story about? Agassi’s is about him taking responsibility for his own life – it mightn’t sound like much, but given he had a tennis-obsessed dad who drove him as a child, and then people around him who took care of him, it’s gratifying when Agassi claims that ownership.

Agassi also holds nothing back. I admire him for baring all, because a lot of his earlier life isn’t pretty, and some of it is vain (e.g. did you know that great mop of hair he paraded as a young tennis player was actually a wig?). But it’s that journey that makes him who he is. Unfortunately, a lot of memoirs – especially of celebrities – just become press kits. The celebrity is tentative to open themselves up, because it could invite criticism, or tarnish their reputation. So instead, the stories are designed to sell them.

When I serialised my blog The Other Me, it was about my battles with neuroses, and how I’ve come to something of a truce with them. I hoped each instalment held nothing back (at least in relation to me). The purpose of The Other Me was to show others suffering silently with neuroses that they’re not the only ones, and it doesn’t have to shape their lives the way it did mine as a teenager, as well as in my twenties. That was my story.

If you’re going to write a memoir/autobiography, think about what your story is.

Blaise’s The Road to Tralfamadore is Bathed in River Water explores her childhood growing up on something of a hippy commune, Tralfamadore, in the 1970s. The book employs a series of self-contained vignettes that can be ethereal, but they engage because each has an arc, they contribute to a greater story, and she’s open about her life – all this viewed through a child’s eyes of wonder.

She has some strong puffs on the back of the hardcover, too:

    ‘A beautifully rendered portrait of a place and time, a family and a community. Nostalgic, tender – and yet clear-eyed.’
          – Inga Simpson
          Understory: a life with trees

    ‘I love this book. It is at once magical and real, both earthed and enchanting. It captures the innocence and spontaneity of a child’s view of the world, tempered by the child’s wry, sharp, affectionate observations on the antics of the wayward, loving, flawed, yet wise adults that weave in and out of her life. It was a joy to read.’
          – Arnold Zable.
          Writer, novelist and storyteller.

    ‘A dreamy excursion into an amazing way of life that captivates and mesmerises, and will challenge everything you know.’
          – Lazaros Zigomanis
          Pride

That’s some heavy-hitting endorsement. Well, Simpson and Zable are heavy-hitters. I don’t know about Lazaros.

Anyway, those who know me know I don’t freely endorse things. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also grown the teensiest weensiest bit intolerant with stories (in whatever form, be they movies, television, plays, books, mime, etc.) that I don’t think are particularly good (especially if they’re getting raves), but here’s one I’m heartily recommending.

Pick it up and give it a read if you get the chance.

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Lots of people think writing is easy, or should be easy.

If you have an imagination, you can tell a story – right?

But that’s like saying if you can imagine a house, you should be able to build one. Surely there’s nothing too involved there? Dig a foundation, lay down some bricks, build four walls, throw a roof on top – what could possibly go wrong?

It annoys me (I’m easily annoyed) that people think that writing is easy, like writers can sit at the computer and hammer out 9,000 words in a single sitting. No problem.

Unfortunately not.

Writing is painstaking. Whatever’s in your imagination has to be articulated onto the page. You need to find the right words to build the right sentences. The right sentences need to construct the right paragraphs. The right paragraphs need to evolve into a narrative that makes a cohesive chapter. Each chapter has to contribute to a compelling story. And within all of these constructs – even the smallest ones, like finding the right word – there’s so much that could pojssibly go wrong, e.g. a lack of clarity, overwriting, repetition, etc.

As a writer, you’re always evolving – at least until your mind packs it in. But as you’re evolving, you’re learning. You discover new ways to do things. You also learn where you’ve been doing things wrongly, e.g. you might have an over-reliance on exposition, or have favourite phrases and words that you use (every writer has them – I used to love ‘ominous’).

As you learn, the filter through which you write changes, so you curtail these habits – not all the time. Early drafts should be a spill. The filter can act as a net to catch some stuff, but you should always just aim to get everything you need onto the page, and that doesn’t mean stopping to check every keystroke.

With TFSoLY, I’ve bullet-pointed a number of things that I’ll have to either go back and revise, or write into the story. They’re not small things, either. If they were, I’d do them right now. These are big, BIG things. But, right now, it’s important I get the rest of the story down, so I’ll know how those earlier parts will need to work when I do go back and attend them.

Something I’ve found extraordinarily helpful is what I call my Shit List. This is a list of words or phrases that I overuse.

Once I’ve finished the early draft, I’ll run a FIND & REPLACE, highlighting every use of these words or phrases.

Some examples from my Shit List:

  • eyes / gaze / glance / stare / look: an easy habit to fall into, connecting the characters to other characters and/or the environment.
  • turn: my characters are always turning – turning to or away from other characters, or to look at things.
  • spun: my characters are always spinning – dramatic flourishes and all. How can you not love a dramatic flourish? It’s a reason we should still wear cloaks in today’s society.
  • seem: I’m often writing that something seems [fill in whatever comes next].
  • just: my Pantera editor, Lucy Bell, picked up I overuse this – I’m unsure why. I think it’s just become ingrained.

There are others, but these are enough as examples.

When I worked as an editor, I found a lot of these common – especially the eye action. Writers love eye action. (And the word ‘suddenly’, which I refuse to use anymore – it’s such a melodramatic way to inject urgency.)

Just Another Week in Suburbia is approximately 80,000 words, and went through about thirty drafts – including some sizeable cutting of things that didn’t work, and writing in new material (including a whole new final act). August Falling is approximately 83,000 words, and went through at least twenty-five drafts – including writing in some new complementary scenes to round-out the story

Now, by drafts, I mean I read them from the first word to the last word (and some scenes and/or chapters repeatedly). That’s a lot of reading and revising. In the case of Just Another Week in Suburbia, that’s reading roughly 2,400,000 words to get those 80,000 words as right as possible (with help from feedbackers, and my wonderful editor Lucy).

People who aren’t writers or editors see only the final product, and don’t realise how much work goes into getting it as good as it can be.

Writing’s not easy.

(This was actually meant to be a post about mental health – well, I guess that can come next week. Sounds ominous, hey?)

 
Last Week’s Lie: I claimed I’d been bignoting myself. I’d never do that.