Memoir Writing Tips: Exercises Inspired by Bach and Cicero

by Matilda Butler on May 18, 2012

Writing Prompt LogoPost #149 – Women’s Memoirs, Writing Prompt – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

Where Did Bach and Cicero Show Up

As you know by now, this is my week of guest blogging on Today I published an article about what Johann Sebastian Bach and Marcus T. Cicero offer to writers. I hope you’ll join me over there. Below, I’ve created a series of memoir writing tips, each one tied to a stage I’ve described on SheWrites.

Invention Stage

Your Writing Tip #1: Think about the next part of the story that you are going to write, your invention as meant by Bach and Cicero. Then compose a one paragraph synopsis. This will help you to stay focused. Return to it if the scene or section isn’t working out. You may need to even rewrite the synopsis. That’s all right. The synopsis is like a plan and plans are often revised to meet the changing circumstances.

Arrangement Stage

Your Writing Tip #2: Quickly write the major ideas or points you will cover in the current scene. Print out the page and cut it so that each idea is on a single piece of paper. Organize them first one way and then another. You will be surprised at how many times a different arrangement actually works better. Sure we can always do cut and paste with our computer file. However, try this other approach for a time or two and see if it works for you. All too often we think we already know the best arrangement and simply proceed down that path without considering that a writing map might show a better way to get to the end goal.

Style Stage

Your Writing Tip #3: Each person in our stories is unique. This statement is true whether the person is fictional or real. But it is all too easy for characters (yes, people are characters too) to sound and act alike. You want to avoid this without going to extremes of the all good or all bad person. In our new book, Writing Alchemy: How to Write Fast and Deep, Kendra Bonnett and I focus one chapter on using the social sciences to help develop characters. We also provide a number of links to free personality tests we’ve checked out that you can use. Start by taking a test as yourself. Then take the test as the character you are writing about. Knowing the character’s personality lets you create actions and behaviors that are true to the person. Although personality is just one facet of each person in your story, understanding it will give you new insights for shaping memorable characters. Read more about personality and you’ll see how both behaviors and misunderstandings can be explained.

Memory Stage

Your Writing Tip #4: As I explain in the SheWrites blog, we need to stretch a little to see what this stage from Cicero offers writers. I suggest the following: After you complete a scene, segment or chapter, be sure to take the time to read it out loud. Does it make sense? Does it convey the meaning and emotion that you were seeking? Do time and place come through clearly? Does the dialogue sparkle and move the story forward? Make yourself read it word by word. This is probably the best way to spot typos and missing words. Kendra Bonnett and I often see this with our students. They will read a section to the class and suddenly find the errors that they missed when silently reading.

Delivery Stage

Your Writing Tip #5: Develop a written one-minute elevator speech. Then follow that with a four-minute follow-on speech. Be prepared for a question or two from an agent or a publisher in between the one-minute and the four-minute versions. You’ll be surprised at how long a minute can be. At the same time, you’ll see how you need to capture another person’s attention. Enough details to intrigue — few enough details to fill the time. Then practice in front of a mirror. Not ready for the speech? Sure you are. If you know what you are writing about then you can develop the speech. Developing it will help you focus on your theme and message. Think you’re not to this stage? Develop the two speeches and start practicing them on your critique group, on friends, even on strangers who ask what you do. This is a great way to find out what works and what doesn’t work. Watch for reactions and follow-on questions and conversation. Be prepared to reshape your two brief talks. Then when you finally go to a writers’ conference, you’ll be ready to talk with an agent or publisher. You’ll even have a head start on your book proposal.

Thanks for joining me on Women’s Memoirs. I hope you take a look at for the background to these five writing tips.

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