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. 

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.

Memoir Tip #119: Tracking First Draft Changes Part 2

In Memoir Tip #118 we talked about some of the changes you should track when writing your first draft. Today we will discuss different options for tracking. How you track will depend on several things:

  1. How you prepare to write: plotter, pantser, or a bit of both.
  2. How you write: by hand, on type writer (if you know what that is), or on a computer.
  3. Your personal style and preferences.

Below I am going to give you a few options for tracking. This is not an exhaustive list and there are likely many ways beyond these to track. In fact, I recommend you try out several different ways, combine different options and even add your own personal twists to them. There is no one “right” way to track changes, in fact it is very personal and the only thing that matters in the end is that it works for you. So don’t be afraid to experiment until you find what works.

Writing by hand or on a type writer

  1. Use the margins to note that a shift occurred and jot down any details you might want to add to previous text and where in the text that might be added.
  2. Use brackets (), {}, or [] to write down any details you might want to add to previous text and where in the text that might be added.
  3. Use a separate piece of paper to capture any details you might want to add to previous text and where in the text that might be added. Just be sure to number them in the script and on the paper so they are easy to find again.
  4. Create a plot grid with a column where you can note changes and any details you want to add to previous text and where in the text those changes need to go.

Writing on a computer

  1. Use comments to enter information noting that a shift occurred and any details you might want to add to previous text and where in the text that might be added.
  2. Use brackets (), {}, or [] to write down any details you might want to add to previous text and where in the text that might be added.
  3. Use footnotes or endnotes to note where a change happened and any details you might want to add to previous text and where in the text that information might be added.
  4. Create a spreadsheet to map your plot with a column to capture any details you might want to add to previous text and where in the text that might be added. Just be sure to number them in the script and on the paper so they are easy to find again.

As you can see there are many different ways to track and the amount of detail you include may vary depending on the change and how far into the plot you are when the change occurs. The method and amount of detail will vary based on your personal style, how much you plan or not, and your method of writing. Find what works for you and run with it. The goal is to get through the first draft.

Memoir Tip #118: Tracking First Draft Changes Part 1

In Memoir Tip #117 I talk about the twists and turns out plot takes while writing the first draft. Many are planned or expected, but occasionally one crops up that is unexpected. This occurs less frequently with memoir than it does with fiction, but it still occurs since our memory is often triggered as we write. These unexpected shifts often Trips up new writers. Instead of continuing to write forward they stop and go back to rewrite the pervious text in order to support this new piece of information. But once they start writing forward again another change jumps in and the stop again. Eventually, they give up because it seems as if their story will never be finished. To prevent this, and to be able to write forward with confidence, you will want to track where these changes occur and possibly even note ares in the previously written text where you want to add details or information during the revising/editing phase. When I talk about tracking the following two questions arise:

  1. What is it I should track?
  2. What is the best way to track it?

Today we will look at what you should track. Now there are a large number of things that may need to be tracked and it can vary greatly depending on the format you are using for your book, but here are a few of the key things to track:

  1. New or unexpected characters
  2. New or unexpected information, tools, skills or weapons
  3. New or unexpected events, situations or obstacles
  4. Changes in the protagonist’s or antagonist’s goal or motivation

The terms “new” and “unexpected” will vary greatly depending on your preperation or lack there of. If you are a plotter, then “new” and “unexpected” relate to anything that wasn’t in the original plot. If you are a pantser, then “new” and “unexpected” are a bit more difficult to define since you likely don’t know the path your story is taking. In this case, I suggest you consider anything that is not in alignment with, or supported by the previously written text as “new” and “unexpected.” If you are both a bit of both, then your definition “new” and “unexpected” will be a combination of the ones I just gave. In Fiction Tip #119 we will look at some of the different ways you can track these changes.

Fiction Tip #118: Keeping Track of First Draft Changes Part 1

In Fiction Tip #117 I talk about the twists and turns our plot takes while writing the first draft; some may be planned and others may not. I also discussed the importance of getting through the first draft. Often new writers stop writing forward when they come across an unexpected change and go back over the previously written text to add the details needed to support this change. But then when they start writing forward again they come across another change and another and eventually give up on the story because they feel as if they will never complete it. They burn themselves out rewriting and rewriting before the story is even complete. To allow you to keep writing forward with the confidence, knowing you will not forget to set up a change, you will want to track where those changes occur and possibly even note areas in the previously written text where you want to add details or information during the revising/editing phase. In my experience the following questions that arise when I talk about tracking.  

  1. What is it I should track?
  2. What is the best way to track it?

Today we will look at what you should track. Now there are a large number of things that may need to be tracked and it can vary greatly depending on your genre, but here are a few of the key things to track:

  1. New or unexpected characters
  2. New or unexpected information, tools, skills or weapons
  3. New or unexpected events, situations or obstacles
  4. Changes in the protagonist’s or antagonist’s goal or motivation

The terms “new” and “unexpected” will vary greatly depending on your preperation or lack there of. If you are a plotter, then “new” and “unexpected” relate to anything that wasn’t in the original plot. If you are a pantser, then “new” and “unexpected” are a bit more difficult to define since you likely don’t know where the story is headed. In this case, I suggest you consider anything that is not in alignment with, or supported by the previously written text  as “new” and “unexpected.” If you are both a bit of both, then your definition “new” and “unexpected” will be a combination of the ones I just gave. In Fiction Tip #119 we will look at some of the different ways you can track these changes.

Memoir Tip #117: Writing the First Draft

Writing the first draft is often difficult, but it is the key to your success. Unlike fiction writing where the end is not always clear; in memoir we know how the story ends. However, memoir has it’s own complications. Sometimes we get so caught up in the message we want to portray that we stifle the action or omit situations because we’re afraid they don’t show support for what we ultimately want to say. Other times we worry about what people will think about us or what they may think about the way we portray them in our story. When we hold back on the first draft we often find ourselves with a flat story; which is the last thing we want. My recommendation is don’t think about any of that when writing the first draft. Instead sit down and allow yourself to write freely. To write freely keep the following things in mind:

  1.  Don’t think about a message you want to send your readers, write what happened starting with the trigger or inciting incident
  2. Don’t dismiss anything that comes up, write down every situation that comes to mind in relation to the story you’re telling, even if it seems unrelated or tangential 
  3. Don’t worry about what other people might think or say, write exactly what happened from your perspective
  4. Don’t get stuck only in emotions and internal thought, write down the action in each situation 
  5. Don’t try to make sense of the events and flow of the story, just get the different situations down on the page

The first draft is meant to be a starting point, not a finished product. If you sensor yourself this early in the process you are likely to miss some of the best insights and situations. It is often in the moments that seem unrelated or tangential that we find tension and conflict that adds to the story we are trying to tell. Sometimes our portrayal of people says more about us than it does about them. And when we write the action of each situation we often see things in a different way which leads to new insights. Allow yourself the freedom to write everything in this first draft; after all, you will have plenty of time to massage your message, clean up your portrayal of people and omit unnecessary information during the revision process. 

Fiction Tip #117: Writing the First Draft

I know from personal experience, reading tons of books and articles, and listening to other writers that the ability to finish the first draft is the key. When we fail to finish the first draft our story has little chance at publication and as a writer we end up feeling frustrated and like a failure. So with that in mind, I recommend that you finish that first draft no matter how contrived or awful the middle and end of your story might seem.  I have personally found myself stuck in a place where I couldn’t figure out how to move the story forward and in some cases I didn’t even know where the story was headed. This is not uncommon, especially if you write on the fly and with no pre-planning, but don’t let that stop you. Instead try using some of these options to move the story forward:

  1. Based on what you know about your character make him/her choose between what he/she wants in this moment/situation and what he/she needs in the moment/situation, if his/her wants and needs are the same, then add an obstacle that will put them in conflict
  2. Based on what you know about your character throw in a new and unexpected obstacle to their overall goal (be it a person, thing or situation) 
  3. Ask yourself what is the worst thing that could happen in this scene, then write that
  4. Ask yourself who or what would cause my character the most pain in this scene or stop them from reaching their current or overall goal 
  5. Ask yourself who or what would be the biggest distraction for my character in this scene or from their current or overall goal
  6. Ask yourself what it is your character is trying to achieve in this moment/situation and then add something to stop them from achieving it

When writing the first draft your goal is to get to the end of the story; by whatever means necessary. First drafts are not meant to be published. In fact you don’t need to share them with anyone. The goal of the first draft is to figure out exactly what the story is about, the entire story, from beginning to end. Which means you need to get to an end. The revision process will give you plenty of opportunities to slip in necessary details or fix earlier sections of the book to fit the ending you eventually found. So please, whatever you do, keep writing until you reach the end.

Memoir Tip #116: Writing Style

What is your writing style? Do you like to plan out every detail in advance or let the story unfold naturally? In fiction writing there are three styles of writers, the planner, the pantser and the hybrid. Let’s take a look at each.

Planner – creating a plan before sitting down to write

The planner can range from having a high level plan, knowing the main goal and obstacle as well as each chapter goal and obstacle, or they may create a plan down to the smallest of details. This way of writing generally requires less revision, but can also miss the opportunity for spontaneity and unexpected twists that add depth or tension. So in the planning process let your mind wander a little to find those unexpected moments.

Pantser – starts writing without a plan

The pantser dives right into a story without a plan. They write one sentence and then another, letting the story lead them where it may. This way of writing is great for finding those unexpected side stories that add tension and depth, but it can also lead you down rabbit holes that take you off track, thus leading to a heavier revision process. If this is your style be prepared to put in extra time revising and weeding out unnecessary information.

Hybrid – creates a general plan that allows for unexpected moments

The planner often ends up in this category, especially if they fall on the lighter end of the planning process. This method starts with a general plan in mind, the main goal and obstacle determined and possibly some of the key turning points, but then allows space and openings for unexpected moments and memories to show up during the writing process. This style generally requires less revision than a pantser, but more than a true planner. Like the pantser, you will need to cut unnecessary information and have a little extra time for revising. 

Ultimately there is no right or wrong writing style and all that matters is the style that works for you. If you haven’t already figured out your style I recommend trying them all out until you find the right one. Your readers don’t care about your writing style, they only care about how intriguing they find the finished story.