5 Writing Tips for Overcoming Obstacles to Completing Your Memoir

by Pamela Jane on November 5, 2013

catnav-interviews-active-3Post #107 – Memoir Writing – Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler

“Move over, Mrs. Danvers – This is My Story!”

By Pamela Jane Bell
Regular guest blogger, children’s book author and coach. Pamela is currently finishing her memoir. Pamela’s first book for adults, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic is now available.

hudson_valley_seed_library_ground_cherrySometimes, for recreation, I take a few minutes out from writing to play brain games on the computer. A favorite game is one in which you have to guide a seed through a maze to its proper planting place, avoiding all the obstacles (ladybugs) along the way. I like this game because it’s not timed, so you don’t feel hurried; you can relax and work out the most expeditious path for the seed, while calculating the least number of moves needed to clear the bugs out of the way. Just like life.

All of us are continually bumping up against obstacles to our goals, compelling us to invent ways to get around, through, over or beyond them. Or maybe just kick them out of the way.

The same is true of writing a memoir – we inevitably encounter hurdles that could potentially slow or even stop our progress. Following are some of the most formidable and also familiar obstacles (such as rejection, time constraints, or cosmic discouragement) and strategies for overcoming them. I guarantee these are all genuine, high-quality obstacles, and their solutions have been thoroughly tested!

Obstacle #1 An editor or friend whose opinion you value tells you there is something wrong with your manuscript.

OK, take a deep breath. You are not in cardiac arrest – your manuscript may be, but guess what? You can fix it.

Let’s imagine a discerning reader says, “You are not telling me enough about your father.” At first this criticism may sound daunting, especially if you are not inclined to write at length about your father. On the other hand, your reader may have a point in terms of the need to provide a richer context for your story, or greater clarity. If so, ask her how many sentences she imagines would be needed to accomplish this. You might be surprised when she answers “three or four.” Suddenly a discouragingly amorphous task is reduced to a few sentences. You can do that!

Obstacle #2 Someone tells you you’re hiding something from the reader.

I’ve had this experience. “You’re not telling the whole story,” or “I have the feeling you’re hiding something about your aunt.”

Ask yourself, are you really hiding something or are you simply choosing not to write about it? There is a difference. If your aunt’sunraveling mental illness is not essential to your story, don’t write about it. Doing so might pull the narrative off course, or disrupt the continuity leaving loose ends you’ll have to tuck in later.

Obstacle #3 You don’t have enough time to work on your memoir.

You can think about time linearly,­ that is, horizontally – how many minutes or hours do you have available for writing? It’s a finite amount. But you can also think about time vertically by using the time you have to go deeper into your story, with more intention and greater focus, expanding the time you have to write.

Obstacle #4 You keep getting rejections on your query or manuscripts.

I’ve written here about my co-author’s and my 75 agent rejections for our book, Pride and Prejudice and Kitties. I have a children’s book I sold after 125 submissions, and I’m sure I will break that record in the future. (You can read about the funniest rejections ever – mine and other writers’.)

The solution to rejection is simple; never give up. It isn’t an option. You can revise your manuscript, if you’re receiving a lot of similar criticism from agents and editors. You can research alternative publishing options. But you can’t give up.

3178-danvers1During the years we marketed Pride and Prejudice and Kitties to agents, I remember many empty days, gray days, defeated days. Days when no one in the world seemed interested in our book. Nothing was happening. Not just nothing, but, as a young friend of mine says, “a big fat nothing” – a huge yawning emptiness, failure. If I’d listened to the universe on those days, I’d swear it was telling me to give up, like wicked Mrs. Danvers whispering to Max de Winter’s young wife in Rebecca: Go ahead. Jump. He never loved you, so why go on…” Or, as I heard it, “Go ahead, give up. No one likes your book, so why keep trying?”

Just tell that evil Mrs. Danvers to go jump in a lake, and keep sending your manuscript out.

Obstacle #5 There really is something wrong with your manuscript.

There’s something wrong with nearly everything. Take a movie you love and have watched dozens of times, and Google its title and “holes.” Most likely your search will reveal flaws, illogical sequences, mistakes and inconsistencies in the film. Yet these didn’t diminish your enjoyment in watching it. Discovering your favorite film’s defects may endear it to you even more.

I’m not suggesting that you ignore flaws in your story, only not to be disheartened by an apparent lack of perfection.

I learned an efficient method of dealing with flaws or “holes” in films or books from screenwriting teacher, Bob McKee.

“If you have a hole,” he said, “take it out and wave it around.”

J.D. Salinger did this brilliantly in the famous opening of Catcher in the Rye:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

Salinger does weave in his character’s backstory throughout Catcher in the Rye, but in his own way and his own time.

Finally, tell the story you want to tell. Find your own way to solve problems in your narrative (though readers can be helpful in ladybug_604identifying where those problems lie). Just as your story is a reflection of the particular way your mind works and sees the world, how you resolve flaws and weaknesses in your memoir will be unique to you. Keep advancing steadfastly towards your goal while you move those little bugs out of your way.

Below is the trailer for Pamela Jane’s new book: Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic

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