Memoir Tip #121: Choosing Who To Include

In memoir our characters are real people which means that sometimes it is difficult to decide who to include and who to leave out. Our emotional ties to the people in our lives often makes the task even more difficult because we don’t want to put in negative or embarrassing things about those we love and we don’t want to leave out those we love. For that reason, characters and their plot lines can be another stumbling block in first drafts. Some authors tend to have too few characters and plot lines while others have too many. There is no correct, or standard, number of characters and plot lines that will always work because each story is unique. There is, however, a specific number that works perfectly for each story. Unfortunately you will need to figure out what that number is as you write and revise. Saying that, keep these things in mind:

  1. Your story cannot and should not be single focused on one character and one plot line. Sure the character may be your main protagonist and he/she may want one thing, but life is still happening around them, which means you need to incorporate the other aspects of their life into the story in order for it to feel realistic to your readers. Just keep in mind that the other aspects of life you include should aid the main plot by adding complications that prevent or delay the protagonist from reaching their goal.
  2. Your character cannot and should not be so isolated from other people that they have no interactions. Like the single focused character and plot line, an isolated character is not realistic. It is possible that they only have a few close interactions, but in life people are forced to interact with people. Just keep in mind that the people you have your character interact with is an opportunity to enhance your main plot and show the intricacies of your protagonist through these interactions.
  3. Your story cannot and should not have too many characters and plot lines. In most stories you will have one main protagonist and one main antagonist. The main plot will be focused on these two characters and their struggle. Any additional characters and plot lines should in some way enhance the important aspects of the two main characters and their plot lines. If you find that a story related to another character is trying to take over the intended story, consider giving that person and their plot line their own story. Adding too many characters who each have their own distinct plot line confuses the reader and don’t know who to stand behind. Remember your supporting characters are there to support and enhance the main story.

In the end you are the only person who can determine the right number of characters and plot lines for your story. The key is to remember which character(s) and plot line they story is really about and then only introduce characters and plot lines that help to enhance or support the main characters and plot line. When done really well several or all of subplots will come to head at the same time as the main plot so that the final stand is even more powerful. 

Fiction Tip #121: Choosing Characters

Characters and their plot lines can be another stumbling block in first drafts. Some authors tend to have too few characters and plot lines while others have too many. There is no correct, or standard, number of characters and plot lines that will always work because each story is unique. There is, however, a specific number that works perfectly for each story. Unfortunately you will need to figure out what that number is as you write and revise. Saying that, keep these things in mind:

  1. Your story cannot and should not be single focused on one character and one plot line. Sure the character may be your main protagonist and he/she may want one thing, but life is still happening around them, which means you need to incorporate the other aspects of their life into the story in order for it to feel realistic to your readers. These other aspects of life can aid the main plot by adding complications that prevent or delay the protagonist from reaching their goal.
  2. Your character cannot and should not be so isolated from other people that they have no interactions. Like the single focused character and plot line, an isolated character is not realistic. It is possible that they only have a few close interactions, but in real life we must interact with people. Remember, having your character interact with other characters is a great opportunity to enhance your main plot and show the intricacies of your protagonist through these interactions.
  3. Your story cannot and should not have too many characters and plot lines. In most stories you will have one main protagonist and one main antagonist. The main plot will be focused on these two characters and their struggle. Any additional characters and plot lines should in some way enhance the important aspects of the two main characters and their plot lines. If you add in too many characters who each have their own distinct plot line then the reader gets confused and doesn’t know who to stand behind. If your supporting characters have their own plot line that is unrelated to the story of your protagonist and antagonist consider giving them their own story.

In the end you are the only person who can determine the right number of characters and plot lines for your story. The key is to remember which character(s) and plot line they story is really about and then only introduce characters and plot lines that help to enhance or support the main characters and plot line. When done really well several or all of subplots will come to head at the same time as the main plot so that the final stand is even more powerful. 

Writing Quote #121: Alice Munro

“In twenty years I’ve never had a day when I didn’t have to think about someone else’s needs. And this means the writing has to to be fitted around it.” Alice Munro

Memoir Prompt #121: 

Do you have a favorite restaurant or cafe? Perhaps you remember one from a vacation or road trip that stood out from all the rest. Restaurants and cafes are great places to write about because there are so many sensory details to dig into and enjoy. So today I want you to write about the last time you were at your favorite restaurant or cafe. Get ready, set your timer for at least 20 minutes and remember to bring all your senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. 

What brought you to this place? Was it a special event, a random stop along a journey to somewhere else or a planned outing to try something new? Who was with you? What were you talking about as you drove up to the place? I want you take in the place starting outside when you first drove up and exited the vehicle. What does it look like? Is it in an urban, suburban, or rural setting? What are your initial thoughts, feelings and reactions? Can you smell the food? How does the smell effect your body? As you walk in, describe the place. What do you see, hear, and smell? Does someone greet you? What do they look like? How do you feel entering the place? Are you seated right away or do you have to wait? Can you smell the food as you wait? What are you thinking about and talking about as you wait? When you are taken to your seat what do you think of the surroundings? Describe them in detail. How is the staff? Do they treat you well? Do you have long wait times before you order or waiting for you food? What do you and the person/people you’re with order? What do you talk about as you wait for your meal? Do they bring bread, chips or anything to nibble on as you wait for your food? Did you order salads or appetizers? Now your food has arrived. What does it taste like? Describe it. How do you react to the first bites? Do you savor it with your eyes rolling back in your head? Do you shovel another bite in quickly? Perhaps you spit it out because you didn’t like it. Describe each item you ordered and tasted, including anything you tasted from the plates of others. Is there conversation as the meal is eaten? Take us through the meal including paying the bill and walking out. What was the overall experience like? What did you love and what did you hate? What was special about this place? How did the experience end? Did you drive off to your final destination, head back home, or do something else? Write through to a natural ending.

As you can see restaurants and cafes are an opportunity to engage every sense in a single place. It is a great exercise if you want to practice using all of your senses. But when you really think and write about a special restaurant or cafe you may find a bigger story hidding behind a place. Try writing about other places that include food and people. What is it about that place, the food and the people that really make it stand out?  What can you learn about yourself from these writings? Are there lessons there to share?

Fiction Prompt #121: Novel Delicacy Cafe 

The sun bounced off the dark shiny wood of the table across from Jenna, as if a mirror was angled perfectly to ensure the flash would blind her, at the exact moment the door to the cafe opened and the chime tinkled to alert the staff of a new arrival. She blinked rapidly in an effort to see who walked in, but all she could make out was a shape. It was definately a man, tall, at least six foot three and broad across the shoulders, narrowing nicely at the waist, and falling down to some legs that from the shape looked solid and thick. There was no one in Buckhead built like that, and she would know since she was born in this town and had never left except for a few vacations over the course of her life. She almost rubbed her eyes, but remembered that she had put on make-up that day for the interview she had with food critic from some big national paper. Was it USA Today or Huffington Post? She couldn’t remember. She had no idea how they found out about her little cafe, Novel Delicacy, in Buckhead California or why they want to interview her. It wasn’t like Buckhead was a vacation destination. The small town offered some hunting and fishing since it was nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, but that was about it. She loved the town and the people, but even she knew there was no draw for vacationers.

She heard Carla come from the back room. “Good morning. Welcome to Novel Deli…. Oh my.” 

Memoir Tip #120: First Draft Planning

As I mentioned in Memoir Tip #118: Writing Styles there are planners, pantsers and those in between. Unlike fiction, memoir writers generally know what is they want to write about. But knowing the topic you want about and putting in a little pre-planning or thought are two different things. It is true that  way in which we approach our writing is unique to each of us and may even vary from project to project. However saying that, I still recommend that you do some forethought before sitting down to write hundreds of pages, to save you from writing pages and pages of useless text.

I suggest that at the very least you identify what your protagonist’s main goal is and the main obstacle(s) he/she must overcome. The minor goals and major and minor obstacles may evolve, shift or be replaced with other events as you write, but at least you have a purpose and direction to begin writing toward. After all, a good story gets right to the action and the point (protagonist’s goal) of the story from the beginning.

Here are a few other things to consider when preparing to write your first draft:

  1. Is the main goal and the proposed obstacles life changing or at the very least significant enough to sustain the size of the story (novel, novella, short story) you are writing?
  2. Start at the action of the story, the event when the character is faced with making his/her goal.
  3. Avoid unecessary background information and backstory. If it doesn’t pertain to the current event/situation it likely doesn’t need to be said. 
  4. Don’t let the setting/location overtake the story. The setting should serve the story and be used as a tool to communicate something about the characters and their current situation. 
  5. Be aware of the details you choose and use. Each detail has significance in memoir, so don’t show things that don’t enhance the point you are trying to get across in the given scene or that won’t have significance later in the story. You will more likely employ this step at a more intense level during the editing process, but it doesn’t hurt to keep it in mind when writing the first draft.
  6. Don’t add problems that you don’t plan to explain and that don’t relate in some way to the goal or obstacles of the main characters. This too you will refine during the editing process, but you should keep it in mind while writing your first draft.

Fiction Tip #120: First Draft Planning

As I mentioned in Fiction Tip #117: Writing Styles there are planners, pantsers, and those in between. The way in which we approach our writing is unique to each of us and may even vary from project to project. However saying that, I still recommend that you do some forethought before sitting down to write hundreds of pages, to save you from writing pages and pages of useless text. 

At the very least know what your protagonist’s main goal is and the main obstacle(s) he/she must overcome. The minor goals and major and minor obstacles may evolve, shift or be replaced with other ideas as you write, but at least you have a purpose and direction to begin writing toward. After all, a good story gets right to the action and the point (protagonist’s goal) of the story from the beginning.

Here are a few other things to consider when preparing to write your first draft:

  1. Is the main goal and the proposed obstacles life changing or at the very least significant enough to sustain the size of the story (novel, novella, short story) you are writing?
  2. Start at the action of the story, the event when the character is faced with making his/her goal.
  3. Avoid unecessary background information and backstory. If it doesn’t pertain to the current event/situation it likely doesn’t need to be said.
  4. Don’t let the setting/location overtake the story. The setting should serve the story and be used as a tool to communicate something about the characters and their current situation. 
  5. Be aware of the details you choose and use. Each detail has significance in fiction, so don’t show things that don’t enhance the point you are trying to get across in the given scene or that won’t have significance later in the story. You will more likely employ this step at a more intense level during the editing process, but it doesn’t hurt to keep it in mind when writing the first draft.
  6. Don’t add problems that you don’t plan to explain and that don’t relate in some way to the goal or obstacles of the main characters. This too you will refine during the editing process, but you should keep it in mind while writing your first draft.

Writing Quote #120: Erma Bombeck

“It takes a lot of courage to show your dreams to someone else.” Erma Bombeck

Memoir Prompt #120: Where Did You Grow Up?

Today I want you to think about where you grew up. It might have been a big city, a small town, or perhaps in the middle of nowhere. As we go through the process of writing I want you to think about the small details that really remind you of the place, the details that bring it to life in your mind. So set your timer for at least twenty minutes and remember to use all your senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.

Start by describing what is around you. Is it tall buildings, trees, rolling hills, open fields or houses. What do you hear and smell? What stands out to you about this landscape? How does it make you feel? Does it intrigue you, scare you, excite your or bore you? How does this landscape effect the freedom you have to explore? What warnings are you given by your parents or gaurdians? What about the landscape fascinates you and draws you in? What is your favorite thing to do? How does this activity make you feel? Are you going against the wishes of your parents or gaurdians? What about this place scares you? Are there dangers lurking that you must avoid or are perhaps unaware of or disbelieving of? Really get into the details of the place, what you see, hear, taste, smell and touch. Also think about how each detail makes you feel. Write as much as you can about this place and what it meant to you as you were growing up.

When you are finished look over what you have written. How did this place shape who you are and how you approach life? Do you see where seeds were planted to shape your habits, thoughts and behaviors? What can you learn about yourself from looking back at this place where you grew up? What can you teach others from you experiences? Can you think of specific experiences in this place that had an important I impact on your life and the way you think? Perhaps you will want to write them next.

Fiction Prompt #120: Leaving Evergreen

Shelly was finally on the road. It was the first day of her vacation and she couldn’t wait to get out of the small mountain town of Evergreen. All her life she dreamed of going to the big city, she had even been accepted to San Francisco State, but then her mother was diagnosed with cancer and she had to stay home and take of her. It was a long battle that went on for three painful years. Being stuck in Evergreen was the least of her concerns during that time. No one should ever have to watch their mother, or any loved one for that matter, deteriorate right before their eyes. When her mother died three years ago she swore she would get out of Evergreen and never return. Unfortunately, the medical bills piled up, leaving Shelly with a mountain of dept. She finally paid off the last bill three months ago and began saving for her escape. 

She felt the excitement bubbling up inside her as her 2005 Toyota Camery hugged the tight turns down the mountain and away from Evergreen. She was spending a three days in San Francisco and three days in Los Angeles, scouting out where she would start her life over. She was thinking about going to school, probably a junior college to start, when the sun burst through the window like a laser beam, hitting her directly in the eyes, blinding her just as she was coming into a hairpin turn.