Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What is a Short Story?

 
 
 
 
 
The short story has been referred to as an” apocalypse in a teacup.”  It differs from a novel in that it focuses on style more than action and plot.  There is dramatic and thematic unity. 
 
 
It can be as profound as a novel with fewer characters.  The concentration is on voice, characterization, structure, and dialogue.  Changes of setting are fairly unusual and, in general, short periods of time are covered.  
 
 
Only the essentials exist in a short story. It is urgent and acute.  There are no repetitions, lengthy descriptions, extended passages or long dialogues, wasted characters or extraneous scenes.  The author writes as a poet, using implication, careful selection and compression to achieve the required effect.
 
 
Conventionally, something with 40,000 words + is considered a novel.  A novella would have approximately 17,501 to 40,000 words.  A short story can be from approximately 300 words (sometimes called short-short, sudden or flash fiction) to 5,000 words, even 7,500.  These numbers are extremely fluid. It’s largely a subjective matter for which editors and publishers assign arbitrary numbers based on their needs and available space. 
 
 
A classic short-story shape has a definite arc--gradual build-up to a crisis point, followed by a falling-off.   Main stages can be the initiating incident, complication and conflict, rising action, crisis and falling action.
 
Ultimately, you must let the story dictate its length.
 
catherine@catherinealexander.net  
 
 
 
 
 

Monday, April 29, 2013

Lying to Tell the Truth


When a story is based on autobiographical material there is a tendency to be a slave to the facts.  You write a scene because “that’s the way it happened.”  Well, we don’t care that it happened that way.  Fiction is telling the truth, not telling the facts.  (Truth is something like the essence of fact.  Facts are subject to interpretation or we wouldn’t have a phrase like “The true facts may never be known.”  Let’s say you’re writing a story about a marriage in trouble and you base it on your own troubled marriage.  In the scene you remember, your wife is confessing her infidelity.  The husband (he looks a lot like you) is stunned. He doesn’t know what to say.  The cell phone rings, it’s his brother saying he has tickets to the Mariner’s game on Saturday.  Maybe that’s the way it happened, but is the phone call necessary in the scene you’re writing?  Once you begin your story, you owe your allegiance to the story and not to the facts of your life.  The reader only cares about the lives on the page. 
 
 

 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Importance of the First Sentence


First things first.  The first sentence of a story breaks the silence.  Many of us will read any first sentence of anything.  But will we read the second?  The first sentence has to make the reader want to go on to the next.  Whether it charms, amazes, intrigues, shocks or seduces you, it has to do so quickly and must take you out of your world and drop you into another.  And now it’s impossible not to go on, not to want to know what’s up with these people.

What makes a good first sentence? Start clean and simple.  Don’t try to write pretty, noble or big.  You don’t need fancy language.

 The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings but to create a sudden experience of reality.

  Examples from former students (with their permission):

  “I am wearing my sister today.”

  “You have to drive like hell to get there.”  

  “My mother smoked herself to death.”

  “I found a white rose in an otherwise empty shopping cart.”

  “It was July and that ice cream cake wasn’t going to make it.”

 
A good beginning sentence is full of intimation and assurance that something compelling, something surprising and unusual is going to happen:

 
  “Ray disliked Susan more than any human being alive, yet her naked body was thrusting against him at that very moment.” – Ron Ries, “The Lawn Mower”

 “All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

 “When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow.” –Saul Bellow, Seize the Day.

  “Bald and wrinkled was not what I wanted to be when I grew up.” – Anonymous

 “It’s just amazing how friendly you become when you’re on Xanax.” –Sam Shepard, “Land of the Living,” from The New Yorker, September 21, 2009.

 Don’t introduce a story, just jump right in.  Catch a character in mid-flight.  Begin in the middle of things:
 
  “My wife Norma had run off with Guy Depree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.” – Charles Portis, The Dog of the South,

  “Dr. Iannis had enjoyed a satisfactory day in which none of his patients had died or got any worse.”  - Louis De Berniéres, Corelli’s Mandolin,

 “She is standing under the great clock in Grand Central Station and she is waiting for me.”  -Carole Maso, Ghost Dance.

A good first sentence is intriguing and immediate.  The leisurely beginning is nearly impossible in a short story.  The first sentence should be striking and surprising but not necessarily short.

 “One day you have a home and the next you don’t, but I’m not going to tell you my particular reasons for being homeless, because it’s my secret story, and Indians have to work hard to keep secrets from hungry white folks.”  - Sherman Alexie, What You Pawn I Will Redeem.

"Dr. Koestler’s baboon, George Babbitt, liked to sit near the foot of the table when the physician took his evening meal and eat a paste the doctor had made consisting of ripe bananas and Canadian Mist whiskey.” – Thom Jones, “Way Down Deep in the Jungle” from Cold Snap.

 However, sometimes the shorter the better:

“My father ain’t worth two-bits.” – Anonymous

“He had a gun.” – Ericka Tavares, “Easy Money”

 "I once saw a bloke try to kill himself.”  -Alan Sillitoe, On a Saturday Afternoon.”

 “She wondered how many times a week he had to do this.”  -Thom Jones, I Want to Live!

 “A man came along and fell in love with Dorrie Beck.” -Alice Munro, A Real Life.

 “First I must tell you how much I admired the slope of her sleeve.”  -William T. Vollman, Reading the Bride.  From The Rainbow Stories.

  “All children, except one, grow up.” -J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan.

 “Everyone in Lame Deer knew that old shit-brown Buick.”  -David Seals, The Powwow Highway.

  “I grew up with people who believed unequivocally in the spirits.” – Susanna Moore, “I Myself Have Seen It.”

 Try not to begin a story with long descriptions without first establishing a character or point of view:

Don’t write, “It was a dark and stormy night, the stars weren’t shining on the long, cold Southeast England rocky beach and the torrid rain raced down from the gray looming sky.”

  Rather, “The man pulled his jacket over his head, but the wind-driven rain beat against his face.”

  Now we have a character.  Let’s get on with the story!

 

 

 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Making a Character Real, Part II


HOW DO YOU MAKE A CHARACTER REAL?

 PART II
 

Specificity.   The more specific you get, the more vivid you get.  It’s not enough to speak of someone just as a “big guy,” “little woman,” “pretty girl,” or “smart kid.”

 
Downplay generalities and concentrate on detail.  You walk wide around words that apply to anyone:  man, woman, boy, girl, fat, thin, tall, short, pretty.  Save these as a launching pad.  Start with the big picture, the dominant impression:  adjective of manner, vocational noun.  Then you incorporate additional tags and traits that flesh it out.

 
As you write get down to cases.  Specifics. 

 
That is, if you’re talking about a man with a limp, don’t let it be just any limp.  Maybe the man lurches along, or drags his foot, or humps his shoulders as if each step were painful. Does he walk with a rigid, erect stance, in a manner that says he doesn’t want to acknowledge his handicap?  Or is his progression more that of a person that’s undergone a kneecap job?  Or the tentative, unsteady trotter in the manner often found in someone ninety years of age?

 
If the character is a woman who is less than a fragile flower, don’t be content to call her tough.  Let her retrieve a can of Copenhagen from her purse and jam a bunch into her mouth.  Or perhaps she wears black lipstick, or has a scorpion tattooed on her inner thigh. 

 
These factual details avoid judgmental words and eliminate the writer’s opinion (subjective).  When you say, “She was a tough-looking broad,” you’re passing judgment on her.  You’re assessing her in terms of your personal prejudices.  The reader may or may not agree. 

 
If you report that “She wore a smudged T-shirt torn to point that her bra-less left breast was almost falling out.  The shirt blazed the slogan, ‘Death ‘and the image of a blood-dripping knife,” your  reader is in a position to draft his/her own conclusions.  Same for “She crossed her legs.  The split skirt fell away, revealing a scorpion tattooed high on the inside of her right thigh.”  The onus of judgment isn’t on you.

 
Your goal should be to provide your readers with just enough raw material to enable them to draw their own conclusions.

 
The reader may or may not agree with you when you say that your character looks hung over.  But if you say that the man looks up at you out of “bleary, bloodshot eyes” while he “scrubs shaking fingers along his stubby jaw.”

 
In the same way, your female lead will come through more sharply if she “runs slender fingers along her stocking, scowling and muttering, ‘Oh shit!’ as a nail snags a loose thread.  Think of the difference if you had said ‘exclaiming petulantly.’

 
Conjure up a picture of precisely what you saw in your memory.  What are the feelings that go with it?  Search out words to describe it on a level that your reader shares the experience with you. 
 

Objective presentations are most effective when they concentrate on the particular, the definite and the concrete, rather than the general, the vague and the abstract.  When you speak of the particular, it means that you’re dealing with a unique and special individual, rather than people in general.  “Definite” says exact, specific.  Particular, definite and concrete formulations draw picture in your readers’ heads.  Vivid pictures, especially if you bear down on things you can see and hear and smell and taste and touch.  Seeing is believing and all our feelings spring from sensory perceptions.  Remember the smell of lilacs, bacon frying or day-old sweat?  The smoothness of velvet, the graininess of sand, the roughness of splintered wood.  The taste of ripe Camembert, of sharp cheddar; of chocolate and peppermint and licorice.

 
It will help, too, in your descriptions if you make use of active verbs as differentiated from passive.  An active verb shows a character doing something, rather than merely existing.
 
 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Making a Character Real Part 1


HOW DO YOU MAKE A CHARACTER REAL?

 PART I

 
TAGS.  Broken down into categories, we speak of tags as appearance, ability, speech, mannerism and attitude. A tag is a limited label.  It identifies a character and helps your readers to distinguish one person from another.

 A name is a tag.  It should identify the character and give the reader an idea of the kind of kind of person s/he is.  Examples: 

 Skinny black detective nicknamed “Biafra Baby” in William Caunitz’s Suspects.  “Nurse Ratched” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  “Mr. Wasserfiend” 11/20/08 New Yorker, Think Hard, It’ll Come Back To You --Woody Allen.  “Malvonne” as opposed to “Violet” in Toni Morrison’s Jazz.

 Names also characterize by telling age.  “Esther,” “Ruth” or “Hilda” are not common names these days.   Names like “Kristi,” “Taylor,” and “Madison” have become more fashionable.

 Tag categories are broken down into appearance, ability, speech, mannerism and attitude
 
               Appearance.  Adolph Hitler’s mustache.  A bushy beard.   Extra fine or coarse hair.  Sloppy or fastidious dress, a missing ear lobe, a drooping eyelid.  Matted red curls. 
 
               You can bring appearance into action if you say,” she reaches up one small hand to adjust her beret, the same blue as the color in the painting.”   “She slipped on her sunglasses to hide the carved lines under her eyes.”

                Another tag that says it all:  “He was 47 going on 70.”   Or “Those clever coyote eyes” kept me wondering. “

               Ability.   One of my characters made quilts.  This was certainly not expressed in her nature.  I had to present the background that prepared her for the craft.  How about the skill to make a bomb, style hair, change a diaper, lay cement?  How about the character’s ability to perform such tasks? 

                Speech patterns.  Repetitions such as “sir,” “awesome” or “dude.”  Stuttering.  Never finishing a sentence.

                Mannerism.  Rubbing the chin, blinking eyes, a frown, a squeaky laugh, biting the lip, smoothing the hair.  These are sometimes called “tics.”  My mother was constantly wiping her hands on her apron.

                Attitude.  Mary Poppins’s eternal cheeriness.  Racism, sexism, cynicism, idealism.  Not to mention being paranoid, fundamental in religious beliefs or a born-again atheist.  A slacker or driven to succeed.
 

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sensory Details & Emotional Memory


SENSORY DETAILS & EMOTIONAL MEMORY
 
(Of his wife on her deathbed).  “I found myself, without being able to help it, in a study of my beloved wife’s face, systematically noting the colors.” – Edouard Manet
        
Remember those five senses?  Sight, Hearing, Touch, Smell & Taste

Memory resides in specific sensory details, sometimes referred to as emotional memory:  what the nerves and skin remember as well as how it appeared. In what particular way was Mama beautiful?  What did that angry neighborhood bull dog sound like? If we can capture and name the particular smell of the wax polish in that long-ago house, then other memories seem to follow.

For example, “Russell Baker says he remembers very well the day of his father’s death.  Although he was only five at the time, Baker could tap into vivid details that have stayed with him. “I can still hear people talking that day.  I know what the air smelled like.  I know what people’s faces looked like.  How they were dressed. What they were eating.

“If you find yourself having trouble getting into a story you want to tell, it is always a good idea to get up very close and start using your senses.  You may have a good idea of the whole story in your mind, but your vision of the whole may, in fact, be a hindrance to finding the way in.  Describing some of the details, using your ears and eyes, calling up a smell that belongs to a story, or reaching an imaginary hand back through time to touch a piece of furniture, or the texture of a dress, or someone’s skin – these acts of memory will serve you well.  They can and should be exercised over and over, not only to get you going, but also to push your story deeper, pull your reader closer, and lift the heart of the story out of obscurity into a sensory world that you and your readers can inhabit together.” –Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington, pages 116 and 117.

Exercises --
 
Change the following so that the reader can capture the essence.  Use the senses.

The strawberries were overly ripe.

The horn blared loudly.

The afternoon was warm.

Mother and Dad loved each other.  (You can use touch, taste, sight.)

The reader should to some degree get to know the characters through the sensory details that you provide.

 
Catherine Alexander
catherinealexander.net

 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Metaphors and Similes


Metaphors and Similes

 
Metaphor is a powerful way of telling the truth in other than a concrete way.  It’s called abstract.

 You can give your descriptions a big push with a metaphor.   Essentially, a metaphor is the likening of two objects, phenomena or concepts to each other. 

 As a figure of speech, metaphor is a way of describing one thing in terms of another. 

 “My husband is a bulldog.”  “The day was a diamond.” 

 A vivid metaphor is compelling. It opens a door, adds zip to a piece, gives you a way to express something difficult and is a forceful tool.

 “In Alaska, icebergs are white prisons.”

 “My heart is a rose that blooms for you.”  Corny, but makes a point.

You can use a metaphor to compare, contrast or describe. “His hair was so fine that a kitty cat could lick it off.”

 “It was like a gold filling in a mouthful of decay.”

 “He talked like a verbal machine gun.”

Let’s say that we a comparing a children’s beach ball.  What part of it are you going to make the metaphor about?  The plastic smoothness of its surface?  The shape of its trajectory as it arcs through the sunlight?  The sound it makes when Uncle Bill slaps it with his palm?  The smell of it when you’re blowing it up?  Let’s say we pick the shape of its trajectory. There are infinite possibilities.  One is that the ball is the sun arcing across the sky.  Another would be that the ball arcs like a rainbow over the ocean.

We can begin with a known metaphor and make it more abstract to move away from the cliché:

“Her hair was black as night.” (Cliché)  “Her hair was as black as the hour after bedtime.”  Or, “Her hair was as black as her patent leather pumps.”

As a metaphorical comparison, we sometimes use “than.”  “Her scar was wider than the San Andreas Fault.”

Metaphors are one of the most powerful ways to express the wholeness of our ideas.

My mother’s alcohol abuse:

 The house on Lauderdale Avenue had moods.  Sometimes I saw the house standing square and tall.  As soon as I stepped inside, the place welcomed and warmed me. The slipcovers on the couch were straight, orange gladiolas graced the fireplace mantel, the dining room table was set for four, the house exuded roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and the smell went clear through to the rafters.

Other times, the house folded in upon itself.  As I walked up the porch steps, the house sagged.  Once I got inside, the grief was strewn all over.  The slipcovers on the couch crumpled, ashtrays were dumped, gladiolas were dead and the dining room table was shamed by sticky glasses with lipsticked rims.  The only smells from the kitchen were from bourbon and Pall Malls.

Defining work:

“…to succeed on the Salomon Brothers trading floor, a person had to wake up each morning ‘ready to bite the ass off a bear.'"  -- Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker.

 Simile

Simile is saying that one thing is similar to another, using like or as:  my love is like a red, red rose.  It sounds casual, conversational and lacks the authority of a metaphor. But similes are fun and sometimes what something isn’t can tell you a lot about what is:
 
As comfortable as a hairbrush in bed

As graceful as a hippopotamus on roller skates

As clean as a coal miner’s fingernails

As convenient as an unabridged dictionary

As reassuring as a dentists’ smile

As exciting as a plateful of cabbage

As pleasant as ice water in your shoe

As welcome as a rainy Saturday

As easy as collecting feathers in a hurricane

As interesting as the magazines in a doctor’s waiting room

As happy as a four-year-old in a bathtub of Kool Aid

As sweet as snake venom

Cleaner than Comet

 
Using metaphors and similes makes for artful truth telling.

Catherine Alexander
catherine@catherinealexander.net

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Elephant in the Room


The Elephant in the Room
 
Often we write about our experiences in a general sense, i.e., who, what when and where.  We’ve honored the prohibition on honesty -- we don’t air our dirty laundry, reveal family secrets, cross boundaries, hurt our loved ones, etc.  But if we strain against these barriers, our work becomes deep, compelling and lifts off the page.  Consider the most difficult, the most taboo subjects in telling your truths in an artful way.  This can be done through irony, metaphor, humor, tone, point of view. 

 Keep in mind that we must beware of revenge as a motive.  Writing that has retaliation as its goal is always transparent and makes readers uncomfortable.

 On the other hand, what if we write about the elephant in the room? 

For example, my mother was always getting “sick.”  She spent hours in bed during the day, visited the doctor often and spent time in the “hospital.”  She “fainted” at my aunt’s wedding.  The elephant in the room was alcohol abuse.

I have had it relatively easy.  Mother has been dead for 20 years and I can always tap into one of her “episodes” to get me started writing.  She’s a never-ending resource for me to get words on paper.  The way she held her glass and cigarette in the same hand, the lipstick on her glass, the package of Pall Malls along side the bottle of rum.  The Bacardi bottles teetering on the garage rafters.

Writers are users.  We use the stories around us.  We have the right to tell our stories, but also must be ready to accept the responsibilities, if our writing is to be considered art and a power for good.  If you are worried about the consequences, legal or otherwise, of publishing a story that might upset someone, consider making them unrecognizable.

Writing and publishing are two separate stages of a writer’s work.  Deal with them one at a time.  Sometimes writing about the elephant may spur us on to other lively subjects!

A memoir is a slice of life about which a writer muses, struggling to achieve some understanding of a particular life experience.  A successful memoir demonstrates a writer’s slow coming to awareness, some reckoning within herself/himself over time, some understanding of how her/his unconscious is at work.  Because of this reckoning, the writing of memoir is not without pain.  A memoir that successfully taps the reservoir of universal human feeling resonates strongly with its readers.  The writer has the capability to connect with everything and everyone.

Look deeply within yourself, calling up emotions that are often repressed or avoided. Letting sleeping dogs lie is not conducive to successful writing.

 SHAME

 Shame is said to be a made-up emotion, but some of us feel it deeply within us. It’s a powerful resource for writing.  Tap into it.  Do you remember how you felt when someone said to you, “shame on you?”

When I was four, I traced a swastika made on the house next door. I took the paper with the tracing up to my room and practiced over and over trying to make a perfect swastika.  The longer I worked, the worse I felt.  I have no idea why I felt shame, perhaps it was collective, but I tore up all those attempts at drawing and put them down the toilet.

 I think I was seven when I passed a baby buggy parked in front of Rexall Drugs.  The baby was crying furiously.  I walked back and peeked into the buggy.  The baby’s little fists were balled up tight and its face was purple. I took my squirt gun out of my pocket and let the kid have it. “Now be quiet,” I said, and ran off.   Shame on me.

 GUILT (very closely related to SHAME)

Another baby story.  I was 14, babysitting Norman, around three months.  The card table was used for changing.  I put him on the table and turned around to grab a diaper.  Norman rolled off onto the floor.  I grabbed him and ran next store, which happened to be his grandmother’s house.  She took him into her arms and told me to go home.  Norman’s mother called me that night and told me never to come again.  I felt too guilty to ask how the baby was and I never told my parents why I wasn’t going back.  Still to this day I don’t know what happened to Norman.

 HATE & SHAME

My friend and her husband had this Siamese cat called Valentine.  He was a talker and a hisser, mostly hisser, around me. When I tried to pet him, he would go to bite or scratch me.  Heaven forbid if I ever tried to pick him up. Penny and her husband treated this cat like their child.  One night I was over for dinner and they set a place for Valentine, with a bowl of Scotch broth with barley, apparently his favorite. It was his birthday.  They called “Vally” to come to dinner and planned on singing Happy Birthday to him.   I thought I was going to get sick.  I pleaded illness and left without eating.  I HATED that cat and could not sit at the dinner table with him, let alone sing Happy Birthday to that monster.  And yet I felt shame (whether it was justified or not) because my friends adored that animal, mean as he was.

 FEAR

What scares you the most?  Why?  Have you ever felt on the brink of disaster?  Threatened?  In a place where you couldn’t get out? 
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
 Writing exercises:

 Who said “shame on you” when you didn’t deserve it?

 Is there a person or animal you dislike and you feel guilty about it?

When were you last on the brink of disaster?  Look at your stories, if there’s no brink, add one.

Try at least one of the following:

Make a list of everything you consider taboo for yourself.  Think about which things on the list you could begin to write about.

 Write a memoir beginning with the words “It would be much too dangerous to talk about..."

 Tell the story of something in your life you are proud of without trivialization or modesty.
 
Good luck.
 

 

 

 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Unreliable Truth, Emotional Truth, Memoir and Memory


Unreliable Truth

Emotional Truth

Memoir and Memory

 
The purpose of memoir is to capture the essence of the narrator rather than the factual details of parts of life.  Memoir is rarely whole or factually correct.  Memory is selective; it distorts.  It gives pleasure, it reveals disappointment.  We continually create memory from the pieces of our experience.  The stories we tell and retell are unreliable.  Who can say whether these pieces are an actual image from a specific event we remember and not from a photo?  Many people “recall” events from the childhood from looking at old photo albums. Who can say whether the emotions associated with a particular experience actually belong to it or are some feeling we have learned to express?
 
Memory is not false, but it is unreliable in its inclination to make a totally accurate story of the past.  The idea is to make sense of what has happened in a life and to entertain the listener.  Memories reflect our purpose and identity; a reflection of how we see ourselves.  The way we begin to tell our life story is the way we begin to live our life. What we remember is a reconstruction of image and feeling that suits our needs and purposes.  It’s an attempt by the author to narrate memories with the greatest emotional truth.  If you’re the writer, it’s your memory of the event written from your perspective – not your sister’s husband or your child’s.  Each of your family members may tell the story of a particular event differently because of their particular point of view, but that doesn’t mean that your account is untrue.

It is your job to relate your memory as honest as possible and to assure the reader that you have done a sufficient amount of reflection to write your best understanding of what originally happened.  The reader cannot expect you to remember every single detail or conversation accurately. But the reader has the right to expect that what you claim to be true will be accurate to the best of your recollection.  Memoir is about honesty, not about how you appear to others. If you write with emotional truth, your reader will care about you and the events your life. The stories we leave the next generation become the memories upon which they build their lives. Anyone can write facts; not everyone has the courage to write the truth.
 
Most memoirs are written in first-person.  This is your life you are writing about -- your ambitions, success and perhaps, even your failures.  Your memories are filled with people who have adorned, scarred and skewed the plot of your life. You must summon back the men, women, children and animals who have crossed your life.  To preserve the important people you have known, put them in your stories before time robs you of your impressions.  These people are waiting in the wings.
 
What do you remember about your first date?  Did you insist you weren’t hungry so he wouldn’t see your teeth looking disgusting?  Were you afraid to say you needed to use the bathroom?

 Who was the most mean-minded person you knew?  Try to recapture the feelings you had for that person.

Conversely, how about the sweetest person you knew?  Did that person ever fail you?

Who was the one person that drove you completely nuts?
 
Do you often wonder what would have happened if you didn’t:

             Take the plane ride                  Move away

            Marry that person                    Attend that college

            Go to that concert                   Take that job
 
Catherine Alexander

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Memoir vs. Fiction


MEMOIR VS. FICTION

A memoir is a selected aspect of life.  It is a story from a life.  It is not a replica of a whole life.  That would be an autobiography.  A memoir doesn’t have a shapely plot in the way that fiction usually does.  Imagination plays a role in both kinds of writing.  However, the application of imagination in a memoir is bound by facts, while in fiction it is centered on what the reader will believe.  If you name what you write memoir or fiction, you enter into a contract with the reader.  You say this is what really happened (memoir) or you say that this is imaginary (fiction).

There is one rule that applies to both memoir and fiction:  Be interesting!

Please note that not everything in a memoir is factually accurate.  No one can remember the exact dialogue that took place at breakfast forty years ago. The author says that this is my story as I remember it.  It is up to you how far you will allow yourself to go to fill in the memory gaps.  We all know that siblings often have different childhoods; a memoir is a story of your past.  But you are limited by your experience, as you remember it.  For example, if you say you had four sisters and this is not the case, then you are telling a lie.   In a memoir, the author stands behind the story, saying that this is what happened; this is true.  The central point commitment is not to fictionalize. 
 
In fiction you can invent characters, places, change chronologies and make up a better ending.  In other words, you are free to lie.  You can conflate several characters into one composite character. A story can sound like it’s true told in the first person, but if the writer presents it as fiction; the reader will usually perceive it as such.  Once you begin fiction, you owe your allegiance to the story and not to the facts.  Sometimes a lie tells a larger truth.  Perhaps Aunt Mabel from Tennessee can be better told as Genevieve from Connecticut, or your mother’s beginnings in an orphanage better explain her behavior as an adult.  Thus, fiction is not bound by facts.  It tells a story by tampering with the truth.
 
 Helpful exercises for writing memoir or fiction:

A.  For all you list lovers, try any of these on and see if you can come up with a story.

1.           List the friends you’ve had who made a difference, even the ones who weren’t exactly friends.

2.            List all pets you’ve ever had, even the short-lived goldfish from Woolworth’s and the little turtle that turned into cardboard overnight.

3.            List the moments you’d live over again for whatever reason.

4.            List the worst moment(s) of your life.

5.            List anything you’ve done that you’re ashamed of.

6.            List objects that you’ve lost; the ones you wish you now had.

7.            List the person you wished you had never met.  The person you want to meet.

8.            List the best meals that you’ve ever eaten and where you ate them.

9.            List the toys and games that you owned as a child.

10.        List your favorite songs and the ones that you can’t stand.

11.        List your favorite smells.

12.        List the things that make you afraid.

13.        List what you resent the most.  Conversely, what you appreciate the most.

 B.    Or write a portrait about someone you hate, knowing that person will never see it.

C.     Or write the story of a particular vacation and why it was good or bad.

D.     Or write a story using this beginning:  “I can tell you how it happened.  It’s easy to say how it happened.”

E.      Or incorporate some of the above material into a story you are presently writing or have written.

 
The more you write, the better you get.
 
Catherine Alexander

Best Submission Rejection Ever

"Catherine, at this time, we don't handle projects with swearing in them."