The Lovely Bones: Structure In Memoir

This blog post is about writing a memoir, but as a writer whose fiction doesn’t follow a “tried-and-true” plot structure, I find its advice very helpful. Maybe you will too.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A Halloween-themed blog post from Janice Gary:

GHOSTSYou could say I’m a ghostwriter. All memoirists are. We commune with the spirits of the past, inhabit old haunts, sift through the bones of the people we once were (and once knew) in an attempt to reanimate what was and illuminate what is.

Our ghosts are real. Or at least as real as we remember them. One thing we cannot do is make stuff up. And we don’t need to. We have more than enough material to conjure life on the page. But that’s part of the problem. What do you do with it all – all that experience, all that emotion?  What spooks those of us who write from life the most is this dilemma: how to wrangle this vast, unwieldy life of ours into a well-shaped story.

Fiction writers have the old tried and true (and yes, trite) basic plot triangle…

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My Epigraph

Discussion recently turned to epigraphs on an editors’ board I’m on (Editors Association of Earth — if you’re an editor and you’re on Facebook, check it out).

Academic publishers, it seems, are OK with epigraphs for books, and chapters of multi-author books, but they frown on epigraphs used for sections or even chapters of single-author books.

Self-publishers in some genres — how-to was mentioned — are apparently prone to excess in the epigraph department. They’re also prone to misquoting and sloppy sourcing. Given the number of erroneous and sloppily sourced quotations floating around the internet, this is not surprising.

Epigraphs may not be covered under “fair use,” the conventions that guide when it’s OK to use quotes and excerpts from a copyrighted work without the copyright holder’s permission. This was a surprise to some of us, including me. The argument is that epigraphs are not essential to a work the way, say, quotations from a book are essential to a review of that book.

Aside:Fair use” is a contested area. If you plan to quote other writers in your work, read up on it. I believe there is, and should be, a huge middle ground between “anything goes” and “consult a lawyer,” Do learn the lay of the land, because the cost of putting a foot wrong can be high. Word on the street for a long time has been “don’t ever quote from popular song lyrics without getting permission.” This has nothing to do with ethics and everything to do with the fact that the big music publishers have been zealous about defending their turf. Your use of two lines from a popular song may be fair by any reasonable definition, but it takes very deep pockets to defend it in court. Might often does make right, and it makes us jumpy too.

I’ve used epigraphs in some of my essays, one-act plays, and even poems over the years, without ever asking permission and without ever being threatened with a lawsuit. My works generally circulate in areas that aren’t bristling with lawyers, and the works I’ve quoted from are usually written and published by people whose approach to fair use is probably similar to mine.

The epigraph for my novel, The Mud of the Placewas different. I knew I had to get permission. Not for legal reasons, though novels do tend to travel further than essays, poems, and one-act plays, and I didn’t want the source of my epigraph to find out accidentally that I’d used her words. The big reason was that her words had inspired me to write the novel — which meant overcoming my fear of attempting anything longer than 40 pages.

The story: I live on Martha’s Vineyard. Much of what’s written about Martha’s Vineyard in books and the national press is incomplete, distorted, and even flat-out wrong. In August 1993, President Bill Clinton came here for a three-week vacation. I got to watch the national press corps and others swarming all over the island and getting it wrong wrong wrong. It was infuriating.

Paley TNY clip sm

From the May 16, 1994, New Yorker

The following May, a little squib leapt out at me from the Talk of the Town section of The New Yorker. What caught my eye was the painting of poet-writer-activist Grace Paley at the top. What changed my life were her words: “If your feet aren’t in the mud of a place, you’d better watch where your mouth is.”

It came in response to an interviewer’s question: Would she comment on the situation in South Africa? (Nelson Mandela had been released from prison only four years earlier.)

If only the journalists and novelists and travel writers who wrote about Martha’s Vineyard were that wise! For a while I kept fuming at them because they weren’t. Then it dawned on me: I’m a writer, and my feet are  in the mud of this place. If not me, who?

Paley’s words kept me going while I slogged through the mud, not of Martha’s Vineyard but of doubting the importance of what I was doing and my ability to pull it off. They gave the manuscript its working title and eventually its actual title and, of course, its epigraph.

The Mud of the Place finally made it into print in December 2008. Grace Paley had died of cancer on August 22, 2007. I regret to this day that I didn’t try to contact her during the years I was working on it, but, well, I just wasn’t that confident that I’d ever finish it or that it would ever see the light of day.

Once we entered the tunnel to publication, with definite light at the end of it, I knew I needed someone‘s OK. My epigraph didn’t come from one of Paley’s books. It was an off-the-cuff comment, and maybe something she would have revised if she’d had the chance? Not to mention, it had given my novel its title. Plus — well, Grace Paley’s words and example had inspired so many people over the years. I was one of them, and I wanted to acknowledge the debt. I located and contacted Nora Paley, Grace’s daughter and literary executor. I enclosed the clipping and told the story. I was thrilled when she said yes, go ahead.

So when anyone argues that epigraphs aren’t essential to a work, I shake my head and think, But sometimes they are.

Revision as Improv

I’m in deep revision mode on Wolfie, the novel in progress, so ‘ve been thinking a lot about how I know what needs to be added or subtracted or completely rewritten.  The truth is, I don’t know. In an early Write Through It post, I write that editing was “Like Driving.” Revision is like that too.

Early this year, I started a second draft before I’d finished the first. As I blogged in “On to Draft 2!” a couple of plot threads had emerged in the writing. Those threads were going to affect the novel’s climax and conclusion, but until I developed them more fully I wouldn’t know how.

A sound foundation

A sound foundation

The same thing happened with my first novel, The Mud of the Place. I thought I was writing a tragedy. Then around page 300 of the first draft, a minor character said something that took me by surprise. Suddenly I could see a way out for a main character who was digging himself deeper and deeper into a hole. I tried to keep going — “I’ll fix the first 300 pages in the next draft,” I told myself — but I couldn’t. It was like building a house on a crumbling foundation.

So I went back to the beginning and started again. The rewriting wasn’t as hard as I’d feared. I didn’t have to throw everything out. That minor character’s words revealed new possibilities in the story that was already unfolding; they’d always been there, but I hadn’t noticed.

Since I can’t tell you how to revise, I’ll start by telling you how not to revise: Don’t return to page one and immediately start fiddling with punctuation and word choice. Revision starts with the big picture: structure, organization, plot and character development, that sort of thing. The little stuff is frosting on the cake. Mix the batter and bake the cake first.

To see the big picture, you have to step back — to approach your own work as if you’ve never seen it before. Of course you have seen it before, but if you let it sit for a while — a couple of weeks, maybe even a couple of months — you may be amazed how different it looks when you come back to it.

While you’re letting it sit, start a new project or wake up one that’s gestating in a notebook or computer file somewhere. If nothing tempts you, use your usual writing time to scribble whatever pops into your head. Chances are it’ll lead somewhere interesting.

If the work is far enough long, you might even draft a colleague or two to read and comment on it at this point. We all have different ideas of when the best time is to do this. I generally wait till I’ve gone as far as I can on my own.

When you’re ready, save your current draft with a new filename. The old draft is your safety net. Then start reading. Read like a reader or a reviewer — and not the kind of reader who pounces on every typo! Notice where you get impatient, or confused, or curious.  I’m always on the alert for clues that something interesting is happening offstage. This is like walking by a closet and suddenly there’s loud pounding and thumping coming from behind the closed door. Something is demanding to be let out. See “Free the Scene!” for more about this.

Word's Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I'm looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Word’s Comments feature is a handy way to make notes for revision. Here I’m looking forward to draft #3 while working on #2.

Make notes as you’re working about scenes that need trimming, or expanding, or moving to somewhere else. If you know what needs doing, go ahead and do it. Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature enables you to make tentative additions and deletions, then revisit them later.

Look for “soft ice” — the words, sentences, and whole paragraphs that don’t carry their own weight. Look for the pathways that led you into a scene but that become less important once you know where you are. They’re like ladders and scaffolding: crucial to the construction process, but dispensable when the job is done.

You’ve heard the standard advice “Kill your darlings,” right? It means different things to different people, and I’ve got mixed feelings about it. I’ve got mixed feelings about most “standard advice.” Most of it’s useful on occasion, but none of it is one-size-fits-all. Take what you like and leave the rest.

But sooner or later when you’re revising you will come to a stretch of drop-dead perfect dialogue or a scintillating anecdote and realize that it just doesn’t belong in the manuscript. Maybe it’s too much of a digression. Maybe it calls too much attention to itself. Maybe it duplicates something better said earlier. It’s hard to let these things go. Track Changes comes in especially handy here. You can zap it provisionally and gradually get used to the idea that it really does have to go.

When you’re slash-and-burning and filling in gaps, don’t worry too much about the transitions between paragraphs and scenes. If the right segue comes to you, by all means go with it, but if it doesn’t, move on. You can smooth it out later.

If you can’t solve a problem while you’re staring at it, stop staring, make a note, and move on. My thorniest problems tend to solve themselves when I’m out walking or kneading bread, falling asleep or just waking up. Solutions sometimes appear for problems you haven’t come to yet. Writing is weird.

When I started draft #2, I swore I’d get to the end before I started draft #3, but now, at page 238, I’m pretty sure I won’t. At present I’ve got  two viewpoint characters. To develop an important but currently underdeveloped plot thread, I need to add a third. He’s already a player, but adding his point of view is going to change the book’s balance a lot.

There’s also an incident I need to stage near the beginning of the book: my central character, Shannon, listens to an answering-machine message from her long-estranged younger sister. Shannon never picks up or returns these calls because her sister is always drunk or strung out. This time, however, her sister sounds sober and lucid. Shannon doesn’t pick up this time either, but the call ripples through the narrative. The ripples were already there; I just didn’t know what had prompted them.

So I’ve got a little farther to go in draft #2, then it’s back to the beginning to start on draft #3.