Mea culpa

Dollarphotoclub_21773956 txtIt’s time to admit the awful truth: I can’t keep up. Between editing jobs, the need to finish my novel by the end of the summer (The 12,000-year-old Whisper is at least a couple thousand years behind),  and maybe about a million other things, I can’t afford the time to research my blog topic and write posts on a timely basis.

The lawn hasn’t seen a mower blade since last year; the front yard is a wilderness nightmare, and the decks haven’t been visible since I blew off the debris back in ’09 (or thereabout). And the pond–oh, my Lord–the poor pond. The fish hate me, and the neighborhood is now infested with billions of froglets which are normally transported elsewhere before graduating from tadpole school.

So, that’s it. I’ve fallen behind, and I don’t know when I’ll get (caught) up. I’m trying, but it doesn’t look good. If you’re waiting for something from me, I’m afraid it’s gonna be content txtdelayed a bit longer. And all you new projects out there–you know who/what/where I’m talkin’ about–I still feel the allure. I’ll get to all of you, eventually.

Just be patient while I mollify the fish. And the yard. And my wonderful, patient, and ever-so-understanding bride.

–Josh

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Audio memoir — getting started

Congratulations! You’ve decided to do an audio memoir. That’s awesome. And, if you think about it, pretty darned brave, too. It’s not something just anyone can do. But, before you rent time on an MGM sound stage, or get another mortgage to convert your spare bedroom into a home recording studio, it might be a good idea to do a little warm up, first. This is what folks who know mean when they say, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

You can start with the free software that comes standard on most home computers. If you’re using a machine with a built-in camera, then you’ve almost certainly got a built-in microphone, too. Neither may be state-of-the-art, but who cares? For now, you’re just stretching and flexing.

If all you want to do is hear yourself, crank up the sound recorder program that came with your computer. You may have to search for it, but it shouldn’t be too hard to find. If you just can’t find the darned thing, consider casting aside your technical shyness and ask someone who knows your PC (Mac, whatever) a little better than you do. Don’t be concerned if they smirk and tell you how miserable the built-in stuff is. Right now, that’s not important. You’ll eventually learn a lot about recording audio. Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere, right? For now, just suffer through the commentary, shoo the interloper from the room, and crank up the program. If it asks for permission to use your built-in microphone, click “Yes.”

This dreadful screen is from Windows 8.1. Let's pray  that version 10 will be better. God knows, it can't be worse.

This dreadful screen is from Windows 8.1. Let’s pray that version 10 will be better. God knows, it can’t be worse.

Suddenly, you’re looking at a screen you’ve likely never seen before. With any luck, it’ll be fairly free of clutter (buttons, dials, controls and whatnot). In fact, there’s probably little more than a microphone graphic on the screen. That’s enough. Click on it and start talking. Feel free to yack about anything that comes to mind. It doesn’t matter. Now, while you’re doing that, notice that the dot underneath the line is moving to the right. That means you’re actually recording something. It could just be the sound of your breathing, but if you’re actually talking, words are being recorded! Whoa — who knew it was that easy?Skinny

When you click on the circle symbol that replaced the microphone thingy, the recording stops. Click on the triangle in the lower left-hand corner of the screen to hear yourself. Note: it could be painful.

[Pause for sharp intake of breath]

I’m guessing one of two things just happened. Either you didn’t hear anything (or it was so faint it amounts to the same thing), OR you realized your voice sucks. It’s too high, or too low, too soft, or too raspy, or it sounds like someone is trying to make fun of you. Alternative One is easy to fix; just crank up the volume. Alternative Two? You’ll just have to live with it. For now, anyway. Later, with better recording tools, there might be some hope.

You’re not done yet, however. It’s time to read something out loud. Maybe it’s a part of your memoir, or your notes for your memoir, or maybe someone else’s memoir. Whatever. Just read it and record it. Remember, we’re just playing around here, trying to get used to the idea of making a recording of your voice. The likelihood that you’ll want to actually use what you record now is remote — seriously, like Easter Island remote.

Skinny notWhen you’re done, save it. Depending entirely on the freebie recording software you used, this could be a simple task, or not. Again, if you need help, ask your techie pal for it. This would also be a good time to figure out where you’re going to store the stuff you intend to put into your audio memoir. While you’re working on it, there are going to be many, many (did I say “many”?) audio files. You’re going to need to identify them — in order — so when the day finally comes you’ll be able to assemble them in one grand pile. Maybe with photos and charts and diagrams, too. And other sound effects.

We’ll be talking soon about all of that, and some really good audio recording software. Best of all, you’ll be able to afford it, no matter what your budget looks like.

For now, get busy working on what you intend to record. If you’re not sure where to start, try reading through some of these suggestions. If you still can’t think of anything to write about, it could be a sign of something more significant. To be brutally honest — another way to say “blunt” — if you haven’t got anything to say, why open your mouth?

Y’know?

–Josh

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An *audio* memoir? R U nuts?

CharicatureI have one good recording of my father’s voice. He made it just a few years before he died, and I’m sure he had no intention of leaving it as a way to be remembered. Instead, he did it to practice a speech he would be giving at his local Toastmaster’s club. I made copies for my brothers and sister on cassette tape — high tech at the time! — and gave them as Christmas gifts.

The real gift, however, came from Dad. Hearing the laughter in his voice, the way he pronounced certain words and paused between others still CA smile 1974brings a tear to my eye and a smile to my lips. A sad one, to be sure, but one I have never, ever, regretted.

Lately, I’ve thought a lot about that recording but not because of its mechanical “quality,” complete with coughs, the rattle of paper, and the clink of a coffee cup in a saucer. None of that matters. What does matter, is the voice. His. And except for that recording, it’s gone forever.

Some of my memoir writing students have expressed concerns over their grammar and punctuation. They’re concerned that people will see the flaws in their writing and think less of them. My assurances that grammar gaffs are easy to spot and fix haven’t convinced them. That’s when I suggested a way around the problem: an audio memoir.

One of the great things about a recorded voice, is that few people get to see the script the speaker’s working from. When I suggested to my students that they consider recording what they’ve written, it provided a way out of their syntactical dilemma. Forget the less-than-perfect grammar andDollarphotoclub_33938903 sm punctuation; instead, cut to what’s really important: the story, delivered in the only voice that matters!

For the next few posts, I’m going to focus on creating audio memoirs — tips and techniques for “telling” stories, software and hardware to consider (though most computers these days have everything you need built-in), and how to take advantage of digital media to add photos, video, and music.

So, here goes….

One of the easiest ways to get started, without actually committing to a “real” memoir project, is to take advantage of a recordable storybook. These have been around for years, and the prices have dropped significantly. Hallmark sold the first ones for $39.95. Now you can get them from Amazon, among other places, for less than $10.

In addition to the usual story fare like “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” there are both scripted and non-scripted recordables that allow you to tell either “a story” written and illustrated by someone else, or your very own story. If you have small children or grandchildren, these alone may satisfy your needs.

My hope, however, is that such kit-form books will only whet your appetite for the real thing — your story, as only you can tell it.

–Josh

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It’s never too early, or too late, to start writing

Lexi Jrnl 1My oldest grandchild, Alexis, who just turned nine, found a way to shock me this past week–in a most wonderful way. She told me she’s been keeping a journal for the past year. It’s chock full of her thoughts, jokes she’s heard, stories she’s dreamed up all on her own, and observations about the world and her place in it.

Unfettered by concerns about grammar, punctuation, and spelling, she launched herself into the written world–in her own way and on her own terms. Her stories may echo elements of books she’s read, and her comments may not match the depth of the world’s greatest minds, but she felt confident enough in herself to record them. Even more than that, she felt confident enough to share them. (So, hats off to Mom and Dad, too!) Writing, it turns out, can be a lot of fun.

I typically work with folks on the other end of the age spectrum–boomers, mostly, who all too often believe they have no story to tell, or worse, no skills with which to tell it. I wish they would tackle their own writing projects with the same enthusiasm and disdain for the niceties that my darling granddaughter managed. I can only imagine how much they could accomplish.

In a Fisherman's LanguageLife is So GoodIn that regard, there are some outstanding role models. Look no farther than James A. Henry or George Dawson. These men didn’t even learn to read until they were in their 90’s, and then they wrote books of their own. (Both are available at Amazon.com.)

In their innocence, children often display a degree of courage that seniors lack. They haven’t experienced enough of life’s roadblocks and sucker punches to know what they can’t do. Instead, they just do it.

The primary goal for any beginner, should be to finish a first draft. Editing and error repair can come later. The hard part is getting the story down, and maybe not even all of it, but enough that one can sit back, breathe a sigh of relief, and say, “It’s done. At least for now.”

Sadly, the greatest hurdle for beginners is the exact same thing: finishing a first draft. The reasons for failure are legion: too little time, too many distractions, too little training, too much to do, too little this, too much of that, and on and on and on. Spare me!

Lexi Jrnl 2The only way to get it done is to sit down and write. It’s not magic. It’s work, but it’s not always unpleasant work. Quite the contrary. And it certainly doesn’t have to be done all in one sitting. Or ten, Or a thousand, for that matter. But it does require dedication and a belief that what is being written is worthy of being read. That applies to writing in the broadest sense–fiction, of course, but all that other stuff, too.

So, if my 9-year-old granddaughter can do it, and if at least two gentlemen in their 90’s can start doing it, there ought to be hope for the rest of us. We can tell our stories, write our memoirs, record our jokes and recipes and poems. We can make a statement.

We are writers.

–Josh

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Do your characters act like people?

Wait–You mean my human characters?

It may seem like a stupid question, but it’s not. In the process of working our way out of caves and into cars, we have developed certain patterns of behavior which are common to all races and nationalities. The pattern I find significant, as it relates to storytelling, is how we respond to crisis. We’ve been doing it for a long, long time, and we do it the same way, over and over.two robots together

So, again, are your characters — fiction or non-fiction — acting like real people?

Need more detail? Imagine you’ve just been in an  accident, or you’ve received unexpected news (good or bad), or something else of significance has occurred. What happens next?

Here’s where the behavior pattern kicks in. It involves four steps which I first learned about in a blog by bestselling author Jim Butcher. They are:

  • An emotional reaction to what just happened, followed by,
  • A review and evaluation of what just happened, followed by,
  • The anticipation of a response to what just happened, followed by,
  • A choice based on the foregoing.

That may look like a heap of stuff, but taken a step at a time, it will feel pretty familiar. Why? Because this is how almost every member of our species reacts! For example:

Imagine you’re a male college student, and you’ve just learned that a female friend is pregnant with your child. (Change the background circumstances to see how it works with other dynamics in play.)Dollarphotoclub_63207821_text

1) Your first reaction is emotional. “I’m going to be a daddy!” Or, if this doesn’t come as entirely happy news: “I’m going to be a daddy?” Or, “Wait–are you sure?”

2) Automatically, your mind will replay events leading upDollarphotoclub_63207822_text to this revelation, and you’ll try to evaluate your situation and maybe answer some of the questions you just asked. “I’m pretty sure I was in Pago Pago at the time,” or “You have me confused with my roommate,” or “Finally–I have a purpose in life!” Whatever.

Dollarphotoclub_58282674_text3) After evaluating the situation, you’ll start figuring out how to respond, in other words, you anticipate what to do next. It could be a marriage proposal, or a name change coupled with relocation to someplace far, far away. It might even be a short, probably ugly chat with your current girlfriend. (See note about background circumstances above.)Dollarphotoclub_58594809_text

4) Finally, you’ll make a choice about what to do, and this translates into action.

This works equally well for fiction or non-fiction. The thing to keep in mind is the order shown here–it’s always the same. Some phases may be more involved than others, and much depends on the severity of the crisis. But these are the steps we always go through, and we always go through them in this order.

If the characters in your memoir or novel don’t follow this pattern, they’re just not acting like real people. [Please note: I have no formal training in psychology or the study of human behavior, but I know what rings true. And this does. How it relates to sociopaths and/or psychopaths is fodder for another discussion.]

–Josh

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Superlatives–another approach to memoir

Anyone who’s taken a creative writing course has likely been assigned the task of relating their most embarrassing moment. For the non-writers, the opportunity probably occurred during an evening with friends or at a younger age, at a sleepover or maybe as part of a Awkward Easter narrowcampfire gathering. Back in the Stoned Age we called such confabs “bull sessions.” Quaint, no?

The thing is, for just about everyone who’s ever lived, figuring out which of your life’s embarrassing moments ranked as the “worst” (“most”?) could be damned tricky. I can recall a double handful of events which left me looking, feeling, or acting hopelessly stupid. Should I catalog them all? Maybe go for the Top Ten? Hm.

Embarrassment isn’t normally what most folks have in mind when discussing “superlatives.” But let’s include it anyway. Chances are, a number of related issues made those particular episodes especially embarrassing. Maybe if we take the time to examine them, we’ll find other material to include in our life story.

The same would certainly apply to many of the usual “superlatives”:

  • Happiest — This ought to be the category with the most entries, and choosing just one would be a terrible waste. Revel in the good times!
  • Saddest — If only this state occurred in reverse proportion to happiness, we’d all be better off. Alas, that usually isn’t the way the world works. Might as well cover the lows as well as the highs.Guy scared by UFO in the night
  • Strangest — Here’s a category that could take some memoirs straight off the rails, and unless your life reads like a mystery or an urban fantasy, you may not have much to work with here. But don’t dismiss the category too quickly. There’s likely some good stuff lurking just beneath the surface of your “easy” memories. Dig a little to find it.
  • Scariest — Although this might overlap the “Strange” category a bit, it’s worth thinking about. I’m guessing there were a multitude of frights in your life. There were in mine!
  • Proudest — C’mon, your memory bank ought to be chock-a-block full with this one –whether the pride is for yourself, your significant other, your kids, your organization, or that time you lost 20 pounds and kept it off!
  • Most confusing — Overcoming confusion about something that’s immensely personal can have life-changing implications. It could be confusion over one’s ultimate goals, life direction, sexual orientation, or something else equally profound. These should never be the hard ones to define.

go wrongCertainly, there are other “superlatives” one might include. I suspect there are people running around loose for whom the list of “really stupid things I’ve done” would would fill an entire volume.

I’m open to suggestions on other “superlatives” a good memoir ought to contain. If you’ve got some, pass ’em along in the comment section below.

–Josh

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Tension: We’ll be right back, after this…

Tension is (or should be) a writer’s stock in trade. It’s what causes readers to stay up late to “finish just one more” page, scene, chapter, part, or volume of your epic–be it fiction or something else. Tension is shorthand for any literary technique which operates on the most tantalizing of questions: “What happens next?”

About the only place where tension isn’t welcome would be in the directions for a do-it-yourself project. In such cases what comes next must be abundantly clear, as failure to provide it won’t result in mere tension, as it will in a story, but could result in physical harm, either to the consumer or the poor schlub who sold the fershlushinger item in question. Readers rarely hunt down writers to hurt them for plot failures. (And, just to be clear, Stephen King’s novel, Misery, was not autobiographical!)

Admittedly, it’s easier to work tension into fiction than to use it in a memoir. Still, it can be done, and with great effect. Yours included. Assuming you’ve chosen the most interesting moments of your life story to record, start by making a simple list of them. I’ll make one up as an example:scary-guys text

  • Landing the dream job
  • Marriage
  • Death of a loved one
  • Encounter with someone famous
  • A great achievement
  • A great failure
  • Birth of a child

I’ve made no effort to put these in any order, nor are they meant to portray the most meaningful events in my own life. When working on your own list, take a moment to be sure the “big” events are included and decide if some ought to be left out.

If you break each of the events down, you’ll probably find there was a time when the outcome was in doubt–maybe competition for the dream job was staggering, or a marriage proposal seemed impossible, or a loved one appeared perfectly fine, and plans had been made, and then… Focusing on the details may reveal opportunities to present the doubts you had or the barriers which stood in your way. It might also mean you recall great expectations dashed by reality.

Relating these critical elements of your story can and should be done carefully and with the possibility of failure clearly shown. Whenever an outcome is in doubt, there’s an opportunity to create tension. Once you’ve identified it, additional techniques can be borrowed from fiction writing to further enhance it.

  • Raising the stakes, in fiction, is a tried and true tension builder. What happened in your life event that made it even more important at one point than another? Who else is depending on you? Focus on that, and the tension level is bound to go up.
  • A time limit of some kind can have a similar effect. Fiction writers call it a “ticking clock.” Who hasn’t experienced deadlines in life? Was there one involved in your experience?
  • Added barriers work in fiction; they should work in non-fiction, too. Not only would the hero have to scale a near-vertical wall, the bad guys greased it! Your memoir need not be that melodramatic, but every layer of resistance to your success offers a means to crank up the tension level in your life’s story.
  • See if you can find more than one way a failure might impact you: physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Getting all three amounts to the trifecta of tension.

opportunityIf you’re writing non-fiction, and especially if you’re working on a memoir, you should take every opportunity available to create and maintain tension in your work. It can be hard, and sometimes nearly impossible, but it will be worth it in the end.

I promise.

–Josh

 

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