Make Your Memoir’s “Characters”—Yes, Those Real Ones—More Real to the Reader

Characterization was a stumbling block in two fiction manuscripts I critiqued recently. One was a novelized memoir — a novel closely based on the life of the author’s best friend from childhood. The other, also a novel, took more liberties with “real life,” but the two main characters were stand-ins for the author and her longtime partner. Both authors had a ways to go before their characters came to life for the reader. This blog post offers great tips for making this happen, whether or not your characters are, or are based on, real people.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Shuly Cawood author picBy Shuly X. Cawood

Once upon a time, I read a fantastic graphic memoir by Roz Chast about a daughter and her parents. From the moment one opens Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? the characters of the author’s mother and father jump off the page.  Even on page one, the author is showing us how her parents argued, giving us a sample of her parents’ dialogue and showcasing some of their quirks. These techniques are exactly the kind that hook a reader into a story because if a reader cares about a character, the reader wants to know what’ll happen to the character—and thus will read on.

It doesn’t matter whether the characters are real people: They all require development, just as fictional characters do. But not all memoirists think about this or know how to do this well. I certainly didn’t as I started to write my…

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It’s An Illusion

Having a story to tell is a great first step. Getting it across to readers who aren’t privy to your intentions? That’s where the craft comes in. Here’s some excellent guidance on how to keep readers engaged without giving everything away or withholding too much till the very end.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Entertainment at the annual Brevity office party

A few years ago I studied at Writers In Paradise with the wonderful Laura Williams McCaffrey. I brought pages from a young-adult novel, thrilled to share for the first time with people who didn’t know me, didn’t love me, had no vested interest in my happiness. My hope was they’d be gripped by suspense from the very first page, the start of a countdown to a terrifying conclusion.

They found it blah. It didn’t grab them. Sure, the voice was nice, but it was just a teenage girl thinking. Where was the action?

I said, “But there’s this countdown…”

“Countdown to what?”

And that’s when I realized I’d left out a key piece of information. In ten drafts, I had failed to give the reader the most important detail: The protagonist has a gun in her lap.

I’d spent seven years with…

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Writing for Change

Over the holiday weekend I drafted a letter to the editor of my area’s two weekly newspapers, the Martha’s Vineyard Times and the Vineyard Gazette. (Can you guess where I live?) The letter dealt with ways to reduce gun violence. By the time I emailed it off yesterday morning, eight other women had reviewed it, commented, and signed on. All were members of a local women’s group I belong to. (A 10th signer was added last night.) You can read the pre-publication text on the website I manage for this group.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about Postcards to Voters (PTV), a national all-volunteer outfit that writes get-out-the-vote (GOTV) postcards to Democratic voters in state and municipal elections across the country. My #1 goal was to let others know about PTV and encourage them to get involved. To make sure I got my facts right, I emailed the link to the leader of the group. He emailed back to say he’d already shared the link with a candidate inquiring about PTV and was planning to do so again.

On the editorial side, when I first saw the political e-newsletter What The Fuck Just Happened Today? (WTFJHT — “Today’s essential guide to the shock and awe in national politics”), it was love at first sight. When curator-editor-publisher Matt Kiser put out a call for assistance — not just for financial contributions to enable him to do this full-time but for volunteers to help with the writing and editing — I thought, Hey, I can do this.

So now I copyedit most issues on the fly. The first draft of each issue usually appears online in very early afternoon Eastern Time (Matt’s on the West Coast). I’m on- and off-line a lot while I’m working, so I generally catch it not long after it posts. Editing is via GitHub (which took me a while to figure out, but I managed).  Matt appreciates my contribution, I keep up with the national news, and I have the immense satisfaction of putting my skills to good use.

I don’t know about you, but when I think about writing and editing, it’s usually with the product in mind: books, stories, poems, reviews, plays. newspaper features, blog posts, etc. I tend to forget that writing and editing are also useful skills with lots of practical applications. In these trying political times, the need for clear writing has never been greater. For starters, activist groups frequently have occasion to issue press releases, letters to the editor, position papers, and calls to action.

Plenty of people have the ability to produce such documents, but those of us who practice writing and/or editing as vocation or avocation have an edge that comes with experience. An example: On social media and in the organizations I’m involved with, I’ve noticed that capable writers often don’t think enough about their audience. I’ve seen arguments and even flamewars ignited by careless wording. Earnest activists sometimes forget that to be effective, what they write must be read and, ideally, shared; and readers all too readily skip over documents that are so jam-packed with detail that there’s no white space on the page.

Press releases and letters to the editor are more likely to make it into print if they’re clear, concise, accurate, and well organized. Posters are more effective when the information on them is correct and complete, and if you’re paying for printing, it’s a lot cheaper to get it right the first time. Lots of people can spot the occasional typo (and crow loudly about their catch!), but it takes someone with proofreading or copyeditorial experience to maintain the focus to do it consistently.

So, writers and editors, the Resistance needs your skills, and maybe you’d find the experience of putting them to good if unpaid use immensely satisfying.


How Reading Rewires Your Brain

Mired in the thickets of writing and editing, we sometimes lose sight of why we do what we do. We’re creating stuff — fiction and nonfiction, stories, poems, essays, and whole books — that will get people to read. Here’s a reminder. Thanks to Charles French for his blog post calling this to my attention.

M.C. Tuggle, Writer


There is no doubt in my mind that modern society traps its subjects in an unhealthy and unsuitable environment. That stark realization motivates many of my stories (see here and here, for example). The most disturbing symptom of how toxic our culture has become is the increasingly acerbic mutual distrust evident in current politics. Little wonder so many feel depressed, powerless, and alienated.

Rather than utilizing technology to better our lives, we let it rule us. Distracted by smart phones, buffeted by inescapable sensory overload, and hobbling our discourse in 140-character outbursts at each other, we’re incapable of understanding our own inner selves, much less that of others.

Fortunately, the tonic for the condition we find ourselves in is close at hand — if only we would use it, as this eye-opening piece in big think proclaims:

Research shows that reading not only helps with fluid intelligence, but with…

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But That’s How It Happened!

“You’d think that basing a novel on real-life people and real-life events would be easier than making it all up from scratch — but it isn’t. Strange but true, the fact that you knew at least some of these people makes it harder, not easier. You’ve got to bring them to life for the reader. To do this you might have to rearrange, fudge, or add details. You might have to make up some new characters. And that’s OK: this is fiction, after all. If you want to turn it into a novel, you’ve got to make effective use of the novelist’s tools: plot, characterization, point of view, narrative, dialogue, and all the rest of it.”

This past summer a client asked me to critique the current draft of his novel in progress. It was based on the life of a lifelong friend who died some time ago. The first-person narrator was clearly based on the author himself.

I opened my critique with the paragraph above. “But that’s how it happened!” is a common cry among novice writers. It’s not a bad place to start, but it’s never enough.

An early clue that this manuscript hadn’t jelled yet was the dialogue. It sprawled. My first question for dialogue, my own or any other writer’s, is “Would you sit still for this if it were played out onstage or onscreen?” Most of this dialogue would have had audience members nodding off or walking out. How long will you watch minor characters chat on and on about their daily routines without ever making an observation that’s important to the story?

Sometimes, however, these endless conversations yielded valuable nuggets, an insight into character or a memory of a past event. You know the writer’s mantra “Show, don’t tell”? Some telling is fine and necessary in any work of fiction or nonfiction, but some of what these characters were telling could be more effectively shown in a scene.

This is what early drafts do: give you clues about what needs to be developed further in the next draft. I do a lot of freewriting in early drafts, often letting characters talk on and on or ponder what they’re going to do next. Often it takes a while to get to the revelation or epiphany that reveals character and/or moves the plot. It’s your job as the writer to wait for it, recognize it, then prune all the verbiage away from it so your readers will see it too.

When characters don’t drive a story’s plot, the writer has to do it, often by conjuring a new character or an unexpected event out of the blue. New characters show up, of course, and unexpected events happen, but in this case the story was completely dependent on them: unbelievable successes, terrible accidents, a treacherous colleague, and a series of women too good to be true. Quite possibly all these things happened and all these people existed in real life, but unless they’re integrated into the story they come across as plot devices introduced to make up for the lack of momentum in the story.

Sitting in the center of this particular story is the main character’s mother. She’s horrible. We see her being horrible, everyone agrees she’s horrible; she’s so horrible that I couldn’t stop wondering how she got to be so horrible. We see her being cruel to her son, but we rarely see him or his best friend trying to come to terms with her cruelty. The horrible mother’s husband is suspiciously saintly, and so is her older sister . . .

Then, near the end of the ms., one character drops the bombshell that saintly husband and saintly older sister were having a long-term affair while the boys were growing up. Whoa! Saintly husband, it seems, had wanted to marry saintly older sister in the first place, but for implausible reasons had married the horrible mother instead. Now there’s a development that could help sustain a plot and deepen our understanding of all the main characters.

And here is the big challenge for writers who want to turn events they participated in or witnessed and people they knew into convincing fiction or memoir: You’ve got to achieve enough distance from the characters to see things from their various perspectives. That goes double for the character with your own name or the fictionalized version of you.  This can be scary: What if heroes aren’t as heroic and the villains not as villainous as they seemed when you were living the story the first time round?

If you’re driven to put all that work into writing draft after draft of a story, it may be because the story just won’t let you rest till you come to the heart of it. Writing the story will change you. You’ll probably see things and consider possibilities that you didn’t before. We write to understand the story, and ourselves, better. “But that’s how it happened” is just the beginning.


Do the Doing: An Actor Writes

This seems related to my recent post about details. Using her experience as an actress, the author writes: “Actors spend years honing their craft; good actors know this includes getting out of the way in a performance so people can become immersed in the story on stage, not the actor’s impressive craft on display.” I think something similar is true for writers.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A guest post from Cecile Callan:

“I’m noticing a pattern in your work, and it’s a problem,” my mentor said.

I was near the end of my third term of my fiction MFA when she put her finger on something happening in my writing whenever emotions grew strong. To show an intense scene’s rage, anger, or grief, I’d throw in more adjectives and adverbs, believing more description would create more emotion and show I really meant it. Only it had the opposite effect. Instead of getting across intensity, my frantic, overly dramatic writing pushed readers away by taking them out of the scene.

“But it feels that intense,” I argued.

“It’s not your job to feel it, it’s your job to make your readers feel it,” she replied.

I remembered, then, something I’d learned decades before, working as an actress. In rehearsal for The Cherry Orchard, the director had…

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Keep Yourself Accountable – Find a Writing Buddy

Here’s an idea if you’re not in a writers’ group, or even if you are.

Business in Rhyme


Solace. I always emphasize how solitude is your great companion in writing. Stillness of environment allows the quietness of mind to take place and gives you opportunity to clear your thinking. You can easily access the deepest corners of your being and reconnect with your inner-self. Many writers take advantage and even pick remote and distant places when they are writing their books. I also believe it has to do with fact that in that kind of idle conditions we are able to tune in that inner conversation and it becomes clearer what is it that we want to convey.

For me, early morning hours are crucial for focused and productive writing. When mind is still in dream mode, silence and serenity that surrounds my home form almost ideal condition for writing. So, I always encourage writers to find those special moments during the day when their energy and creativity…

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A Writers’ Group Is Born

Last fall, in “Going Public,” I blogged about Writers Read, a writers’ group hosted by the library in my town of West Tisbury, Massachusetts. At each meeting, six or seven writers read short works or excerpts from long ones — the length limit of 9 minutes is strictly enforced by the moderator. All are invited to comment on each reading, with a focus on personal response to the work. This is not a critique group. Writers Read has developed a core of regulars, with other writers dropping in from time to time.

Marjorie Turner Hollman, writer and blogger, was taken with the idea and contacted me for details on how this group worked. Her local library, in Bellingham, Massachusetts, was interested in starting a local writers’ group. One thing led to another, and this spring the group was launched, with Marjorie and another writer as co-leaders. Starting from the Writers Read idea, they’re adapting it to the needs and desires of the participants. Here’s her account of how it’s working so far.

By Marjorie Turner Hollman

Our first night was a “get acquainted” sort of gathering, checking in to see what writing interests each person had, and what they might be looking for from the group. It turned out we had attracted several poets, some who write in free verse, others who adhere strictly to rhyming schemes. Several participants write science fiction, or a combination science fiction/dystopia, and some write strictly personal stories — memoir.

A few people didn’t bring anything to read, so we suggested taking ten minutes at the beginning of the meeting to write. My co-leader suggested as a topic, “First day of class.” Those who were a little nervous about the group laughed, appreciating the acknowledgment of first-day jitters.

And then we shared. Some read their responses to the writing prompt, others brought in pieces that felt raw with emotion, and while others offered their most highly polished piece for display. Regardless, we listened, and provided positive feedback only. We agreed that we were not looking for a group that offered destructive observations — most of us are already hard enough on ourselves. Our basic ground rules were: no politics, no religion, and leave the erotica at home where it belongs.

A month later, our second gathering resumed with much the same structure, except that this time we came ready with a writing prompt. In fact, we offered two: “What are your writing goals?” or “Tell a story about one experience with the library and how it has changed your life.”

As we worked our way around the table during this second meeting, my co-leader Amy suggested that since we are meeting only once a month, perhaps our group could create a private Facebook page as a place to share resources and blogs that we write. Having made the suggestion, Amy was quickly nominated to put the Facebook group together. Entry to the group is limited to those who have physically come to at least one of our meetings at the library. We are seeking to set healthy limits on discussion, and foster an environment that can encourage tender creative efforts to blossom, rather than be squashed by overzealous, well-meaning folks who offer observations or criticisms that are, intentionally or not, destructive.

And so we continue, grateful for the seed that was planted when Susanna wrote about the impact her writing group has had on her as a writer. I feel sure that we have veered away from the format developed on Martha’s Vineyard. We are finding our own way, and our group is already taking on a character of its own. Regardless of how different our group becomes, I feel grateful for the encouragement we received, Susanna’s patience in explaining their process, and interest in hearing about how our group is doing. So here’s to you on Martha’s Vineyard — Happy Writing!

* * * * * * *

Marjorie Turner Hollman

Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and More Easy Walks in Massachusetts. She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20 years, and has recorded 14 veteran’s oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.

Her website includes more information about her and her work, and a blog about her walking adventures. Her account of the first meeting of the Bellingham library writer’s group can be found in the Bellingham Bulletin for May 31, 2017.


U Is for Usage

People are regularly accused of not knowing their grammar when the real issue is a possibly shaky grasp of usage.

Here’s Bryan Garner, whom I’ve invoked more often in the last week or so than in the previous 10 years, on grammar: “Grammar consists of the rules governing how words are put together into sentences” (Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., section 5.1).

And here he is on usage: “The great mass of linguistic issues that writers and editors wrestle with don’t really concern grammar at all — they concern usage: the collective habits of a language’s native speakers” (CMS 16, section 5.216).

Language eddies and ripples and never stops moving.

Those collective habits tend to change a lot faster than the underlying rules. Think of a river, a pond, or the ocean: the surface sparkles and ripples and can be quite turbulent, while what’s underneath moves more sedately or maybe not at all.

Usage isn’t uniform across speakers of a particular language either. Nowhere close. Much has been made of the differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE), but both BrE and AmE include great internal diversity, by nation, region, and other factors.

Usage that raises no eyebrows in a particular field may seem clunky, appalling, or even incomprehensible in another. Recently an editor queried the editors’ e-list we’re both on about a use of “interrogate” that raised her hackles; in her experience, suspects could be interrogated but not theories, Those of us who regularly edit in certain academic disciplines assured her that in those fields theories can be interrogated too.

The editors’ groups I’m in are not only international, they include editors from many fields, genres, and disciplines. So when we ask if a certain usage is OK or not, we mention the intended audience for whatever we’re working on: fiction or nonfiction? AmE or BrE? academic discipline? subject matter? Is the tone informal or formal?

Colloquialisms and, especially, slang can be especially tricky. Slang often arises within a particular group, and part of its purpose is to set that group off from others. A word that means one thing in the wider world may mean something else within the group. By the time the wider world catches on, it’s passé within the group. This poses a challenge for, say, novelists writing for teenagers and young adults, who in every generation come up with words and phrases that set the adults’ teeth on edge: how to come across as credible when by the time the book appears in print (usually at least a year after it’s turned in to the publisher), the dialogue may come across as ridiculously outdated to its target audience.

Dog in driver's seat

I’ll assure my insurance company that I’m wise enough to ensure my safety by not letting Travvy drive my car.

In English, usage gaffes often result when words sound alike; when their meanings are related, the potential for confusion grows. Consider this sentence: “I assured my friends that I’d ensured my own safety by insuring my car against theft.” “Insure” appears regularly for “ensure,” which means, more or less, “guarantee,” and to make it even more fun, my car is insured through Plymouth Rock Assurance — which works, sort of, because they’re assuring me that I’ll be covered in case of an accident.

By Googling frequently confused words I turned up lots of lists, including this one from the Oxford Dictionaries site. I see most of them pretty regularly, the exceptions being the ones that involve distinctively BrE spellings or words, like “draught,” “kerb,” and “barmy.” It’s missing one that I see a lot: reign/rein. The expression “rein in” has come adrift from its origin, which has to do with horses. “Reign in” sounds exactly the same, but written down it doesn’t make sense.

Working editors, especially copyeditors, store all these frequently confused words in our heads. We’re always adding to the collection — and discussing whether a particular word has graduated from confusable to acceptable, at least in certain quarters. These discussions can get quite heated.

The English-language dictionaries most commonly used these days are descriptive, not prescriptive. That is, they describe how speakers are actually using the words, not how they should be using the words. Take “imply” and “infer”: I can imply (suggest or hint) that something is true, but you can infer (deduce or understand) that I don’t believe it. “Infer” is used to mean “imply” often enough that this is listed as a meaning in both Merriam-Webster’s and American Heritage, though both dictionaries include a cautionary note about this usage.

My editorial mentor, circa 1980, railed against the use of “target” as a verb, which to me at the time, a generation younger, seemed unexceptional. A few years later, however, I and others were railing against the use of “impact” as a verb. What the hell’s wrong with “affect”? we asked. I’ve pretty much given up on that one, though I don’t use it myself.

I cheer loudly whenever an author uses “comprise” correctly, which isn’t very often, but mostly I’ve given up on that one too. Once upon a time the whole comprised the parts, and the list of parts was assumed to be comprehensive. If it wasn’t, you used “include.” So few people remember that distinction that if it’s important that readers know that the list of parts is comprehensive, you better not rely on “comprise” alone to get the idea across.

Similarly, I was well on in my editorial career when I learned that “dogs such as Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies” was assumed to include malamutes and huskies, whereas “dogs like Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies” did not, presumably with the rationale that malamutes are not like malamutes; they are malamutes. No way would I expect a general readership, even a literate, well-informed readership, to know this.

At the same time, I do occasionally feel a little smug because I’ve got all this esoterica stored in my head. But I do try to keep it under control when I’m editing.


R Is for Readers

Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.


Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.

This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.

readers at outdoor café

One of the big highs of my writing life was when my Mud of the Place was featured by the several Books Afoot groups who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in 2013 and 2014.

Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.

This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.

I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.

“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”

She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.”  What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.

“A story or poem,” writes Le Guin, “may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.

And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.