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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Countering the memoir’s kiss of death

When talking to my students (and clients) about their memoirs, I notice we all tend to avoid the 800-pound gorilla in the garret: boredom. Sadly, far too many of the memoirs being produced today suffer from this condition. They just aren’t terribly interesting.

headless3The really sad thing is, it’s not the life story that’s boring so much as it is the written record of it. Too many people jump into the writing and assume that the only way to approach the project is chronological. They then cough up their version of events in a way that’s almost guaranteed to put most readers to sleep.

Is there a cure? And if so, what is it?

It’s the same cure fiction writers have been using for millennia, or longer, if you count verbal tradition. The cure is good storytelling. That means several things, not the least of which is tension. (More about that anon.)

Good storytellers give their readers and/or listeners enough description to make even the strangest environments feel natural. Log cabins, for instance, aren’t just crude, drafty old buildings bereft of plumbing and other creature comforts. They’re structures built with logs, mud, blood, sweat, and almost certainly, tears. The furnishings could be anything from clutter to cultured; the shuttered windows may or may not have had any glass, and the ancestors who lived there may not have had too many qualms about sharing heated space with livestock, prized or not. Making such settings come alive isn’t as difficult as one Bio vs BSmight think. What it requires is imagination.

But “Wait!” you’re tempted to say. Imagination in a memoir? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t that like dipping your brush in the paint jar labeled “fiction?” No, not at all! What’s required is a close look at the story being told in order to find the bits that need color. Or more specifically, the bits that need amplification–the sensory bits. If you make the words you paint with more exciting, it stands to reason that the writing itself will become more exciting.

But that’s not all. The memoir writer who truly wants to avoid penning something boring needs to be picky about the specific parts of the story to relate. If you’ve ever skipped over passages in a book, or thought a scene in a film or TV show dragged, you’ll have an idea about the parts to gloss over or ignore. If nothing unusual happened, then for everyone’s sake, leave it out! Or, lump it all together in one, short throw-away paragraph like: “My high school career was as exciting as a yearbook from a school no one’s heard of–it’s not worth discussing.”

On the other hand, if the high school years were the best of your life, then revel in ’em! Put Splatthe emphasis right there. The same goes for the other interesting chapters in your life. Focus on those where something happened. Imagine trying to read a novel that had no action scenes. (Seriously? Ick. Why bother?)

Further, just as there are good and bad characters in fiction, there are good and bad characters in real life–your life, for instance. When you’re talking about them, you owe it to your readers to bring those folks to life. Don’t stint on the details that make the difference. And, chances are, many of those details are sensory. Use ’em!

Sadly, I’ve run outta time, space and steam for this session. We’ll deal with the subject of tension in the next go-round. Stay tuned!

–Josh

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Just focus, right? Oy.

I’m supposed to be doing a series of blog posts about memoir writing. All I have to do is dole out insightful, inspiring, useful, and easy-to-adapt advice on the tricky art of telling one’s very own story. Easy-peasy, right?Focus, or else

Sure.

Except, holy moly, there are distractions everywhere!  [Engage whine mode] I’ve got classes to prepare for and teach, memoirs to edit, novels to critique, and a brand new book of my own to finish. So, of course, my fourth grandchild chooses this exact moment to enter the world. So much for focus! Thankfully, the little guy and his mom are hale and hearty, if a might tuckered just now.

And yes, I fully admit that referring to a sweet, innocent newborn as a “distraction” is a crime that oughta be dealt with harshly. (I’m pretty sure Grammaw will take care of that.)

But–wait!–there’s more: the yard has become either a wilderness or the setting for the next apocalypse movie; we have half a house worth of inherited furniture that needs some sort of disposition; the pond is a disaster (the goldfish have petitioned for transfer to “real” water, and not the greenish, icky, gelatinous goo they now call home), and my to-do list has been apportioned into multiple volumes. [Whine mode off]

So, how in the hell did I reach this sad state? What member of what pantheon did I affront? Whose celestial Cheerios have I contaminated? [Oops! Apparently, whine mode wasn’t fully disengaged. It is, now.]

BudsI got here by living my life, getting involved, having family and friends, and loving just about every minute of it. The distractions, such as they are, boil down to being reminders of how damned lucky I am. (See my buddy, Nic, in the accompanying photo? Who wouldn’t be happy to have someone this cool in his life? And he’s but one of four now!)

So, yeah, sometimes I forget the order in which certain things oughta be done. But that’s pretty small spuds in the grand scheme o’ things.

I’m happy, even if I’m a tad outta focus.

–Josh

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I don’t wanna push it, but….

 

Getting behind, for me, is inevitable, damn it. I’ve got lots of stuff to do, and when it comes to saying “No!” to new projects, I suck harder than the Atlanta Braves in the post season–and coming from a die-hard Bravos fan, that’s sayin’ a lot!

Sadly, it’s true. But for those of us seeking a silver lining, it’s also forced me to be productive even when I don’t feel like it. Much as I’d like to sit back and let the Muse deliver a massage, or whatever other tender mercies the ol’ gal has to offer, what I mostly need to do is put my posterior in a chair and my fingers on a keyboard. Typically, the end result is something I can eventually manhandle into usable shape. It might not be pretty, but it’ll be okay enough to do the job. This blog, f’rinstance, is a great example: ugly more often than not, but serviceable.

If there’s a life lesson in here, it’d be, “Learn how to say, ‘No!'”

GuiltI tell myself most folks are just like me when it comes to a decision like this. Instead of thinking only about ourselves, and our need to be timely and productive, our usual hard-as-nails personas get all squishy when we’re asked to do something for someone else. And it’s usually kids. “Think of the poor kids, you *@$&  heel!”

Naturally I start thinking about those poor kids. They’re legion, fer cryin’ out loud. Why doesn’t someone ever come ’round and ask about homeless strippers or lingerie models? Surely they need some love, too, right? Call on me, dammit!

What I’m driving at–poorly, I admit–is that there are times when we’ve got stuff to write, and very little time in which to do it. Our options are pretty limited. Either we grovel about the unfairness of life; we find someone else to do the work for us, or we cowboy up and write the best stuff we can write as fast as we can write it.

In case you weren’t sure, I’m a big supporter of option 3: shut up and work. If you have time to read it over, then by all means read it over. If not, just pray you did the best job you could do in the time available. Then, move on to the next project. The world won’t grind to a halt if you mangle a little punctuation or fail to craft the perfect sentence. I also suspect something will happen that allows you to go back and fix the problems that you didn’t have time to fix earlier. And there are always things to fix. Always.

The Muse is a fickle bitch. If you rely on her for inspiration, you’ll be disappointed, unless writing a few hundred words every other year is enough to satisfy you. Sometimes you just have to sit down and work, no matter how you feel or what else you have to do. Sometimes you have to write a LOT in a very short time.

Do the best you can. At the very least, no one can say you didn’t try. And if they do, the people who know you will ignore them for the idiots they are.

Write on!

–Josh

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I’m takin’ a few days off…

But, I haven’t forgotten about those of you who–for reasons unknown–get a giggle or two out of this blog. So, here’s a little heads-up in lieu of my usually profound [cough] bloggish offering: I’ve posted a short story called “Freedom of Opportunity,” which you can get to by clicking here or on the option labeled “Free Fiction” above.

peek banner

I won’t tell. I promise!

peepers

I’ll be back next week with something more practical, if not as inspiring, as a tale from the ever-so romantic 1950’s. You don’t want to miss it.

Enjoy!

–Josh

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My memory resembles Swiss cheese…

baby_swiss memoriesThe bigger the memory, the bigger the hole. Or, maybe it’s the better the memory, the bigger the hole. That’s not really the issue. It’s more of a “which hole represents what” kinda thing. I’ve no problem with stuff I can remember, my problem is with the stuff I can’t remember. Double-check the photo. See all the undocumented holes? Those are the ones I’m talkin’ about.

And, if the Swiss cheese analogy is just too… well… cheesy, consider an alternative. My memory map probably looks more like the Great Plains in the 1600s, shortly after a half zillion bison stormed through. Sorta flat. And pretty thoroughly mulched. Probably smelly, too. So how is one supposed to scrape up enough memories there to build a memoir? How do we remember what we’ve forgotten?

stairs to nowhereConundrum. How does one get anywhere from nowhere? I posed this question to one of my classes and asked them to come up with a list of things someone might have forgotten. Each student contributed five, and I merged their efforts into one big list.

There were surprisingly few duplicates, probably ’cause I listed most of the easy ones in my examples. (Rank has its privileges, right?) Anyway, my loyal followers came up with some gems, and I present their suggestions to the world of memory challenged memoir writers. I hope the items on the list will spark some recollections of things you quit thinking about long ago.

And, if this list causes you to think of still other items I can include next time around, won’t you please take the time to note them in a comment?  I welcome any and all input.

Herewith, then, an incomplete and hopefully soon-to-be expanded list of things a memoir writer might’ve forgotten about (in no particular order). Do you remember:

  • girl-kissing-pigThe first time you kissed someone you weren’t related to?
  • Being lost somewhere, at any age?
  • The day your sister or brother was born?
  • What really went on at Girl (or Boy) Scout camp?
  • Your first visit to an outhouse?
  • The first meal you cooked for your spouse?
  • The first time a world event shook your life?
  • Preparing for your first day of school?
  • Show, striptease. Handsome guys with sexy bodyStupid graduation stunts?
  • The first time you tasted popcorn?
  • Visiting a deserted house, or one that should have been?
  • The first time you tasted beer?
  • Something you did that you never, ever wanted your parents to hear about?
  • What you hated the most about your first job?
  • The first time you went somewhere you weren’t supposed to go?
  • Dollarphotoclub_72098022 smThe first time you hurt yourself doing something stupid?
  • Moving to a new home?
  • The person you never dated, but always wanted to?
  • The first movie star or musician you fell in love with?
  • Learning to drive?
  • Breaking the rabbit ears on the TV when you tried to adjust them?
  • Sneaking into a drive-in movie in the trunk of someone’s car?
  • Burlesque Pin-up Character IllustrationDiscovering that the “show” you bought tickets for wasn’t quite what you thought it would be?
  • When you borrowed something without permission, and it got damaged?
  • The first time you rode a horse?
  • The time you wanted desperately to impress someone, and made a fool of yourself?
  • Seeing the ocean for the first time?
  • The first time someone you loved or respected deeply disappointed you?
  • Your first trip to the dentist?
  • Learning to read?
  • Dollarphotoclub_76668951 smSomething that scared you when you went to the circus?
  • The first time you discovered that something you firmly believed in simply wasn’t true?
  • The “not so proper” things that went on after closing at the “ever so proper” place where you worked?
  • The last thing you loaned to someone that was never returned?
  • The person you’d most like to apologize to?

That’s probably enough for this go-round, but it’s an interesting exercise. If you can’t find some long-lost memories in this list, you’re just not trying hard enough!

–Josh

 

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Drama in a memoir?

Shark attack. Life insurance concept.There’s drama in life, so why not in the documentation of a life as well? We’ve all experienced moments where an outcome wasn’t guaranteed. The concept isn’t limited to sports or warfare. Who hasn’t taken a test of some kind, the outcome of which would effect one’s life? In my case, passing an exam meant keeping my job. For others, passing meant gaining a job, or entrance to a college, or med school, or Navy Seal training.

In writing, however, the concept of “drama” is too often downplayed or worse, equated with “melodrama.” The more acceptable term is “tension.” So let’s rephrase the question: Does tension belong in a memoir?

The answer, as some of my vocal Southern brethren might say, is: “Oh, hell yes!”

So, how does one introduce tension in non-fiction, and more specifically, memoir? Several things come to mind, beginning with promises, vows and obligations. These are all common things, and many of us don’t even think of them as motivators, but that’s exactly what they are. We do things for reasons, don’t we? Well, these can be mighty strong reasons. Add desire to that list, and you’ve expanded the whole notion of motivation exponentially!

Okay then, if you’ve established that something must be done, you have to ask yourself, “What’s standing in the way?” What is it that might keep you from reaching your goal? Another key question that deserves an answer is: “What’s at stake?”  scary competitionIf my goal is to get a date with the insanely pretty redhead who lives on the corner, am I willing to compete with all the other guys who are marching toward her door? If I want to become a physician, am I willing to do the work, suffer the long hours and accept the lousy salary that precedes success?

And then there are other techniques which can be employed as needed. Let’s start with foreshadowing. This one can be very handy and creates instant tension. And it’s as easy as saying something like, “I would find out later how wrong I was.” Or, “If only I’d taken a little more time,” or, “That’s what I thought then.” But be careful, this one is easy to overdo. A little foreshadowing goes a long way.

A technique fiction writers use constantly involves tossing out a question, and then leaving it unanswered. The question needn’t be as obvious as, “What would I do?” Simply setting up a situation that begs the question is enough. Your reader will be happy to ask it in his head: “How will she get out of that?” Or, the one most writers strive for: “What happens next?”

Man with clock trying to meet the deadline isolated on whiteThere’s always the old ticking clock, too. How many times have we seen that used? And yet, it still works! Time limits, deadlines, final warnings–all these things have powerful connotations. Use them if you can.

Way back when, Chekov got it right when he advised producing the weapon in scene one that you intend to use in scene 2. Having things appear just in the nick of time is simply too darned convenient. So plan ahead; set the scene. The “gun,” obviously, is rhetorical. It could be anything, or anyone, whose involvement means trouble. Trotting a potential threat out on your stage may be enough to put readers on edge. And that’s a good thing!

Consider, also, the relative values of known dangers versus unknown dangers. The latter might seem to be scarier–what’s more frightening than the unknown? But I don’t buy it. I know how deadly a coral snake is. If one shows up in my house, I’m moving. I won’t necessarily do that for something strange that crawls in. It could be benign. Which would bother you more, a black spider or a black widow spider?

In the wonderful world of writing, stories revolve around a simple formula, the acronym for which is MACMotive, Action, Consequence. I’ve talked about it at length. (Here, in fact.) It works for both fiction and non-fiction. It also requires that the writer strike a balance between action and anticipation. In fiction, readers need a break; much like the characters they’re reading about, they need time to rest and recuperate before the next great challenge arises. Similarly, readers of memoir need time to process. While they’re busy doing that, you can be setting up the next bit of tension which, hopefully, will pull them toward the next episode of your life.

“What happens next?” Man, what a great question!

–Josh

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