All posts by swanstuff

Writer, small business wannabe, pundit, philosopher, often hopelessly confused, and blessed by a gracious God beyond all imagining (the views expressed by this blogger do not necessarily reflect the Supreme Being, but this blogger hopes he doesn't embarrass the Big Guy too much).

History is My-story

No one’s life is boring if they are continual learners. Life is a discovery. There’s gold in them thar personal histories!

Memoirs are not just for celebrities. While I admit it takes a gift to find the excitement in your personal history, some people have stories that just scream to be written down. But memoirs have a difficult structure to them. First, because there is no structure, and second because there is so much ground to be covered. How do you keep the story going from childhood to whatever you are now?

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No, no, no, I said write ABOUT yourself, not ON yourself!

When Michael J. Fox writes a memoir, it’s pretty easy. We know who celebrities are and expect them to reveal secrets of their past we want to know.

But if you aren’t a celebrity, we have to establish that all up front. Begin with the ending, and drive in your hook.

What’s your life like now? What heights or lows are you living now?

Are you a police officer or corrections officer? What kind of immediate interaction can you show me that sums you up now, which is in contrast to who you were then? Were you a cheerleader or drug addict? Did you have it all together, or falling apart, or did everyone think you had it together when you didn’t at all?

A memoir is usually written first-person, which allows your present self, the narrator, a degree of introspection. You can establish the now, pop back to the beginning, and either tell the story from there or jump around in your timeline. The only rule is tell a great story, and stick somewhat to the truth.

Just somewhat?  Yes. Strive for verisimilitude, an appearance of truth, but recognize the demands of story may require you to combine characters (so the reader doesn’t have too many people to keep track of), sharpen some experiences (that doesn’t mean lie, it just means shape it for story), leave out some experiences (not everything matters), and change settings and names (to protect the innocent and guilty alike, and prevent you from getting sued for libel).

Spend a lot of time in research, and by that, I mean researching yourself. Define:

  • In startling detail, exactly what your journey was. That’s the spine of your story. You should be able to sum it up with a sentence.
  • Write a list of events that mark the twists and turns of the journey. If it isn’t on that path, don’t include it.
  • Determine when and what the epiphanies were; the events that spurred you forward on your journey.
  • The points that held you back from your journey, the doubts, the pain, the fear.
  • What constitutes the climax of your journey, which brings you back to now.
  • How you will tie it up in a bow.

I recommend making a timeline, big, on a corkboard or wall. Once you have all that, begin writing.

That’s all there is to it. Well, more like a sliver of what there is, but this will get you started.

All Characters are Fictitious – Yeah, Right!

Writers have to develop a thick skin. I’m not talking about negative reviews, I’m talking about friends and family reactions to your story.

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Name that character…

Is That Me???

It’s inevitable, your friends and family are going to recognize themselves in your book and have one or more of the following reactions:

  • Honored
  • Horrified
  • Pissed off like a five-ton gorilla

If you write about your family, someone will say, “I never said that” “That never happened” “Is that really what you think of me???”

You’re a fiction writer; learn to spin fiction. “Of course, that’s not you, Aunt Joanne! That’s a different stripper!” (My aunt is a stripper. She strips furniture and restores them. Her business card says in big letters, STRIPPER. OF COURSE I’m going to use her in my stories. She’s colorful!).

“That’s not you, that’s your evil brother.”

“Mom, a writer has to consolidate characters, the good stuff is you, the bad stuff is Dad’s sister.”

“Really? You see yourself in that character? How long have you had these insecurities?”

“The only thing you have in common with that character is name, hair color, physique, and temperament. The rest is made up.”

“You talk in your sleep, honey.”

All our characters have their root in someone we know. The only thing worse than someone recognizing themselves in a character is recognizing themselves in the wrong character.

My recommendation: Give your character not just a different name than the real person, give them a name the real person hates. Try a different hair color and style, maybe a fictitious physical impairment.

And always be sensitive to your friend’s and family’s reactions after your book comes out. Are they avoiding you, looking hurt, kicking your dog? Nip that in the bud. Get that person aside and ask them if so-and-so will be offended because you based that character on them. Your relationship will be restored.

Try potato water for thickening your skin[1]. Worked for me.

[1] Not really.

Self-Help Boom

The largest non-fiction category these days is Self-Help. Do-It-Yourself Improvement.See the source image

Is that because Americans don’t want to ask others for help or is it because the experts are pumping out self-help additional streams of income?

I’d guess a little bit of both. Looking at the blog challenge participants, health and wellbeing are a huge cross-section of bloggers. I find that heartening, if not always interesting. I’m not cynical enough to believe these folks and other self-help writers are in it for the money but rather they have experienced improvement in their lives and want to share it with others.

Evangelism isn’t just for the faithful. 😊

What makes a good self-help book? I’d suggest equal parts knowledge and heart.

Begin with the problem, clearly define it, and if you’re wise, SHOW it instead of telling it. This might be your personal story, or a client’s. It isn’t enough to indicate the problem, you must also illustrate the life impact it has; what the problem costs the reader, how the zest of living is diminished by the problem.

Then you need to envision the reader. This is what your life would be like with the problem solved. Insert your renewed life here as the model for the reader to achieve. Once that’s established, hop into your way-back machine and give us an idea of your journey. We all have problems, something clicked in you to change things. What was it? Why did you decide the journey was worth it.

Now that the reader is on board, envisioned and ready to start their own journey (and if you have gotten them there, you haven’t done your job), start taking them through the process. Anticipate the turn-back points and insert a story of perseverance and reward to keep your ready moving.

Be careful here! Too technical and you lose the reader, not technical enough and you have the same problem. Highlight your own discoveries as you work through the process. At the end of each chapter or section, take the reader’s temperature with questions or quizzes. If forms, templates, and lists are necessary, include them!  Infographics are gold, they give a visual means to understand the words.

Once you’ve delivered them to the promised land (the end of the book), make sure they have next-steps. This may be more of your stuff (additional streams of income), a workbook or journal, an introduction to others on the journey, whatever is appropriate.

As the writer, remember, what’s in it for the reader is what was in it for you at the beginning of your journey. If you don’t have a journey, you don’t have a book.

How Long Should My Story Be?

Oh my, how this answer has changed. It used to be your story had to be at least 60,000 words, or 200 printed pages, then any multiple that was divisible by four. That’s because in the pre-Amazon and off-set printer publisher days, your book pages were printed in “signatures” or a giant piece of paper printed on both sides, then folded and cut to the proper page size. If you’ve seen books that have several blank pages in the back, that’s why.

Print-on-Demand has changed that to a minimum of 25 pages, and e-books have no minimum. Today, your story can be as long or short as it needs to be.

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What better way to get in the mood?

Amazon capitalized on this with Kindle Singles (like a music album has “singles”). Short fiction and non-fiction are now possible and encouraged. Typically low cost, but sometimes you get 15 pages for 99 cents, and sometimes a single page.

So, what does that leave us?

  • Flash Fiction/Dribble/Drabble/Microfiction – Stories from a single word to fewer than 1000 words. Brevity is key and expect a twist.
  • Short Stories – There is no cut and dried word count, but the idea is it can be read in a single sitting (my dad called them One-Flush Stories). Difficult to write because you must balance brevity with character, setting, and plot, so each tends to be sparse.
  • Novellas – Short novels, not necessarily a single-sitting story, but not a full novel, either. 6,000 to 20,000 words, give or take a few thousand. Enough time to tell a tight, focused story with full character development.

Let’s talk about publishing them. Amazon Single is a good way to go, and this doesn’t prevent you from gathering them together in an e-book or in a printed collection when you have several.

Personally, I’ve always struggled with short story collections. The right way to do it is read one and let it digest before going onto the next story, but I tend to read them straight through. There is also a weird psychology to multiple beginning-middle-end cycles in a book.

Having said that, I always enjoyed the flip-book concept, with two novellas. Read the first, then flip the book over and read the second. They’re longer reads, so picking up and putting down isn’t a problem.

I don’t believe Amazon does the POD flip-book, but my next fiction book will be two novellas of time travel. At least that’s the plan. Novellas tend to turn into epics for me.

What’s your flavor?

SF Means More than So Fine!

What does SF stand for? Perhaps your first thought is Science Fiction, but these days it actually means Speculative Fiction with several subcategories.

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Wheels within Worlds

Science Fiction is the heavy hitter, of course, which can be broken down into several other subsubcategories:

  • Hard Science Fiction – This drives deeply into technology and typically engineering science, striving to get it right to a technical degree. The Martian is an example. There’s nary a deflector dish in there.
  • Character Science Fiction or Soft Science Fiction – Here, the science is pure fiction and the emphasis is on the people and themes. Star Trek, Frankenstein, Dune (though Dune gets into some deep terra-forming, it doesn’t try for accuracy). Soft Science Fiction can also refer to the “soft” sciences, like psychology, sociology, anthropology or archeology.
  • Time Travel – This can fall into either of the above category, but there’s so much of it, it gets its own subsubcategory. Obviously, this is more soft sci-fi, since there is no method for time travel (and I’ll categorically state that there never will be). This breaks down further by method of time travel. Technological, mystical, or accidental?
  • Technology – This is does not typically apply to sci-fi but think Tom Clancy. He describes how to build an atomic bomb, the workings of a submarine, and gets in the technical weeds. It’s science, right?

Fantasy also belongs to Speculative Fiction, which includes (but does not require) magic, non-earth settings, non-humans, and can just be clearly a different world than Earth, typically with limited technology. I’d actually class Star Wars here, though it has elements of sci-fi and fantasy. The Ring trilogy also belongs here.

Spiritual Fiction has a more faith-inspired bent. It can be entirely celestial, The Singers, or based on Earth with spiritual elements. My novel, Do Angels Still Fall? includes angels and the Trinity. The Left Behind series, and Lewis’ Space Trilogy belong here rather than in sci-fi. This isn’t limited to Christianity, of course, and can even extend to philosophy.

Alternate History is our final entry for the day. Harry Turtledove has made a comfortable living off of this. Change some element of history and how does it play out? The South won the Civil War, Kennedy wasn’t assassinated, Trump was elected President (oh, wait…)

There are some who would say the term Speculative Fiction is redundant, but it’s my crumpets and muffins.

Did I miss any?

Turn Your Heart Inside-Out and Write for YA!

Young Adult (YA) novels can be cathartic for the writer. Forget about trends, current issues, and the headlines of Vogue. Instead, tap a vein.

My own heart turned inside-out

Personal story: When I finished Me and the Maniac in Outer Space, when re-reading it, serendipitously, my boyhood BFF friended me on Facebook. And my mouth fell open. The characters in my book were us! I am Hudson, and my friend is Jack. Hudson, the smart, cowardly kid who envied his fearless, reckless, big-hearted and strong best friend Jack… was me!  Our backstories were different, and we didn’t find an alien personal transportation device, but the guts of their relationship was us.

Every book and story I’ve written has had an element of my life in it, normally so transformed that it’s unrecognizable, but to me, it’s glaringly obvious. I’m sure it’s the same for you.

So why not turn that inside-out?

Don’t try to figure out what today’s teen feels like. Remember what you felt like, and more importantly, what did you believe that was wrong, that if you only knew then what you know now? Isolate that belief, and imbue your main character with the feeling, not necessary the manifestation of it.

Another personal story: My current project is about a boy with damaged nerves in his face, so he drools and slurs a bit. It makes him feel like an outcast and unworthy of anyone’s attention. My face is fine, despite the natural frown that is my mouth. But I felt all those things because of a long-forgotten bone disease that no one knew about and the fact that I was six feet tall and about 85 pounds. What I know now is that no one cared. For me, a smart mouth and savage wit was a tactic that is the opposite of my young character’s, who is withdrawn and silent.

This story is a bit more calculated than Me and the Maniac, but I have a guide that I didn’t have before. What would I do in this situation with that broken belief?  What kind of situation can I throw him into that will prove that belief wrong? What would I have done if I’d realized the truth back then?

Not much of the story will mirror your life, but you’ll have touchstones, guideposts, and by making it real to yourself, you’ll make it real to others. That beats trends any day of the week.

The Way Back Machine – Print Version

“Tell me ‘bout the good old days…” is a song lyric that hits a chord. We want to know what has gone before us. What was life like way back when?

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The original Way Back Machine

That’s where Historical Fiction comes in. What is it, though? Is a novel set in 1970 or 1980 a historical novel (yes), is a time travel yarn that goes back to the Civil War a historical novel (no)?

Just how far back do you need to go to make it historical? I could be wrong, but I’d say there is a technological answer and a cultural answer, and finally a unifying answer.

Technology – We go in major shifts of technology. I’d argue that a book set in the near past but after the Internet and cell phones isn’t a historical novel, but one that is before is such a story.

Cultural – Boy howdy, does our culture shift. We’re in the midst of a major shift right now. Such recent shifts include the 1960s and the 1920s before that.

Unifying – An Historical Novel is one that makes the time setting a character. They can be centered on personal events, like in Debi Gray Walter’s Through the Eyes of Grace, that follows her grandmother’s story and the cultural mores she had to navigate. Gone with the Wind is a novel centered on a world event, the Civil War. Technology was different, culture was different, all had to be developed in the story.

Historical Fiction is written for a variety of audiences. Debi’s book is for adults; Bonnie Manning Anderson’s book, Always Look for the Magic, appeals to a wide audience, yet is written so middle-grade kids can enjoy it.

Style of writing can also vary. Some authors perfectly capture the era’s style and language; others go for verisimilitude (an example would be Frost, a Ron Howard movie set in the 1970s. He first intended to capture exactly the ‘70s, but it quickly became apparent that the audience would be laughing at the styles and colors; he pulled it way back to merely suggest the ‘70s style).

The key to writing historical fiction is research, research, research. Find more information than you’ll need and use it strategically. For example, cows and goats have been giving humans something to drink for thousands of years, but we’ve had refrigeration for just over 100 years. That means people have been drinking warm milk for more than 95% of its existence (people were always sleepy back then). Does the fact belong in a novel? Maybe, but “commenting” on the time often betrays the storyline. “Unbelievably, Luc drank the warm milk without batting an eye.”  To Luc, that wouldn’t be strange. Yet I do have a memory of a farm and milk straight from the cow that steamed in the morning chill. Such an observation could work without pulling the reader from the time period.

Do work the year in if no world events make it clear. I read a novel recently that I thought was set in the 1920s until the last chapter when the main character used a cellphone to call the police. Whaaa?!  I was NOT happy.

Do you write historical fiction? Do you read it? What do you like about it? Let me know in the comments below.