Dear Pamela: Advice Column for Memoirists

by Pamela Jane on July 11, 2017

Pamela Jane New Book CoverDEAR PAMELA got a great request for this memoir writing advice column. I think you’ll enjoy her response and will be able to put some of her tips to immediate use in your own writing. –Matilda

What Advice Works for You?

Dear Pamela, memoir advice

Dear Pamela,

I’ve really liked your advice columns. [You give us advice, but] I’ve been wondering if you would share the best advice or tips that you have gotten from others? I think it would be fascinating to know what tips you’ve valued the most.

Thanks (and hoping you’ll respond in one of your Dear Pamela columns).

Dear Pamela

Dear Addie,

I’m glad my advice columns have been helpful for you!

I’ve been thinking over your question, and have come up with five of the most helpful writing tips I’ve received from others (directly or indirectly). I refer to these again and again, like a beloved, well-worn tablecloth that has stood the test of time.

Dear Pamela Advice and Tips

Tip #1. Writing is not about the words

Years ago I took a seminar with screenwriting guru, Robert McKee. The auditorium was packed with screenwriters, novelists, children’s authors, memoirists, and editors. We had come to hear McKee talk about the art of writing and storytelling.

When he came out on stage, McKee stood for a moment, gazing intently out at the audience. Then he spoke one sentence I will never forget:
“Writing,” he said, “is not about the words.”

A thrill of excitement surged through me. At that moment I knew this was a seminar I was going to love, because McKee understood what I instinctively felt, but had not fully understood or articulated.

I’ve often related this anecdote to others. But what does “writing is not about the words” really mean? Aren’t words what you put down on the page? Isn’t that what writing is about – language?

Yes – and no.

What McKee was saying is that writing is not just, or even primarily, about the words. Words are something you arrange on a page. What writing is really about is the power and impact of the story that the words convey. We all know the experience of reading something that leaves us feeling empty and dissatisfied, in spite of being well-written.

In order to avoid imprecise or meaningless prose, tell yourself the story first, or, as McKee puts it, “tell the truth.” Don’t worry about the words! Ask yourself what it is you really want to say, exactly what you felt, or experienced. Once you express that, the “perfect” phasing will follow.

Tip #2. Write no matter what mood you are in

“If you only work a little at a time, every day a little, without faith and without hope…suddenly the work will find itself – “ Isak Dinesen author Out of Africa.

I think most of us work too hard to cultivate an (often elusive) positive attitude. We have to feel upbeat, full of energy, visualize success, and so on. But why do we have to do all this? Why can’t we just write?

I find it liberating to know that you don’t have to wait for the perfect state of mind in order to write. You can write even if you’re not in the “right” mood. Just do it; the hope and faith will follow!

Tip #3. Write bad first drafts

We are all familiar with the advice about writing bad first drafts. (Only Shakespeare and Dickens are immune; their first drafts were perfect.) Through coaching many writers over the years, (and in observing myself) I have witnessed many seemingly hopeless early drafts develop into compelling stories. Through persistence and resolve, the writer gradually transformed a manuscript that at first appeared confused, flat, or shapeless, into an excellent and publishable book.

Tip #4. Hang out with your story

A very successful writer once gave me some excellent advice.

“Let yourself hang out with each scene,” she said. “Don’t rush through it.”

This is a balancing act. It’s important to develop each scene to the fullest potential, to relax into it. At the same time, don’t overdo it and lose your reader’s attention with gratuitous details or unrelated side stories. Ultimately, though, it’s better to flesh your work out fully in the beginning. You can always cut later.

Tip #5. Don’t solve one problem before introducing the next

In an episodic story (as opposed to a suspenseful or tightly plotted one) we tend to wrap up each chapter neatly before introducing the next. But it’s better to introduce a problem, and allow it to develop or simmer invisibly “beneath the narrative” so there is a overlap in the action.

You don’t have to end each chapter with an explanation point, like the Nancy Drew mysteries I read as a kid: “The next second, the earth caved in around her and she went down with it!”* but you can keep the narrative moving briskly along by overlapping problems and letting them emerge later, unexpectedly.

This creates suspense, sparks, and surprises in your narrative, delicious dilemmas that will keep your readers wanting to know what happens next.

*The Witch Tree Symbol, by Carolyn Keene


I hope these strategies prove as helpful to you as they have been to me. Please drop us a line in the comment box and let us know!

Yours Truly,
Dear Pamela

If you have a question for Dear Pamela, please
leave a comment below or send an email along
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Be sure to put DEAR PAMELA in the Subject Line

Who’s Dear Pamela?

Pamela Jane is the author of over 30 books from board books to memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story that Story Circle Reviews called “a fine, five-star read.”

Pamela has published essays in The Writer, mothersalwayswrite, Literary Mama, Parent Co., The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Huffington Post. Please visit her at

Wonder what her memoir is all about? You can read the first chapter of her memoir here:

Pamela’s memoir is now also available as an ebook on Amazon.

Her new memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story which Story Circle called “a fine, five star read” describes how she, an idealistic young newlywed, dreamed of a bucolic future in a country house while her husband plotted to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills, a conflict that resulted in explosions of various intensities, drove her mildly mad, and ultimately led to her becoming a writer.

You can see Dear Pamela’s Memoir Book Trailer below. Follow her @austencats.

First Editing ServicePamela Jane heads the First Editing Service and invites you to contact her if you are interested. Click Here for more information.

The First Editing Service offers a great (and inexpensive) way to see where you have been and where you are going. Pamela’s understanding and insights have helped others with their memoirs and can help you move forward on your writing path.

Reviews of An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story

“…Jane takes us masterfully through her story of a lifelong writer struggling to emerge.” —Deborah Heiligman, author, Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith, a National Book Award Finalist

“…a fine, five-star read!” – Story Circle Reviews

“…incisive, funny, and touchingly candid…” —Howard Rheingold, author, The Virtual Community and Net Smart

“…a harrowing story that invites the reader to experience the thrill and danger of the Sixties from a place of safety and acceptance.” —Tristine Rainer, author, Your Life as Story

“…an inducement to all writers who aren’t afraid to take their past experiences and use them towards the future of their dreams…” – a comfychair

“Jane’s memoir…of the hundreds of memoirs I’ve read, is the only one that gives us the opportunity to go into the heart and mind, behind the flashy images of the Woodstock and hippies of the Sixties.” – Jerry Waxler, author The Memoir Revolution

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