Riding Bitch

The daily musings of a writer.


What Makes a Reader Care?

Have you ever read a book that made you cry? If so, what was it about the story that moved you? I would bet that, on some level, you fell in love with the characters and those characters were put in a difficult, perhaps impossible, situation. How did the author make you fall in love with the characters? How did she weave the story to make you feel like you were IN the story? How did she make you care?

This is my challenge at the moment as a writer. After the recent Frankenstein edit to my memoir, I gave it back to the reader who initially told me the draft didn’t hold her interest past the mid-point. Last night she gave me notes based on the new edit. The good news is this draft held her interest through to the end, and there were parts that made her laugh out loud. The bad news is the draft didn’t make her cry. Considering the story is about a couple who falls in love, then one gets sick and dies, and the other mourns him, this is very bad news indeed. Crushing, actually. It means she wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters. It also means the conflict wasn’t clear or compelling enough.

Herein lies the difference between real life and the written word.

In real life, the conflict was really clear and super F’ing compelling to the people involved. Kaz, an otherwise healthy young man in the prime of his life, the man I loved, was dying of a terminal disease, and there was nothing either one of us could do about it. I once told my therapist that being his caregiver felt at times like being on a ship that keeps getting hit by torpedoes. “I’m running around frantically trying to plug the holes, but as soon as I plug one another two show up, and the ship is slowly sinking.” 

The flip side of that nightmare was that we bonded as a couple at the same time we were being ripped apart by his illness.  In pictures taken shortly after his death, I am beaming, not because I’m happy but because I had never felt more in love or empowered. On the one hand, I felt full. On the other, I felt as if a part of me had just died, because it did. I set out to write about us because I wanted to capture the incredible journey we had taken, and the way in which that journey changed us and especially me, the survivor.

Translating all of that to the page is no small task. I’m a screenwriter by nature, not an author. I use language to describe action, setting, dialogue and transitions, not necessarily how the air smelled, the color of the sheets, or how the sun glinting off the car hood reminded me of a childhood scene. My reader picked up on this. “This would make an awesome movie,” she said. “We would be seeing and feeling the nuances without your having to describe them.” But it’s not a movie yet. It’s a book – a novel really (even if it’s true) – which is arguably the most difficult type of writing to master.

I recently posted about losing steam and not finishing projects. Here is a prime example of a “losing steam” kind of moment. I’m tired of writing this book, both mentally and emotionally. But I’ve come too far to stop now. I must push through my fatigue and do another pass. I must return to the sinking ship and remember what it felt like, what it sounded like, what it looked like… then try to describe it so the reader will hear, see, feel and taste the details. I must go back and remember who Kaz and I were, the beautiful moments, the snapshots of love… then shape those memories into characters that the reader will love, and moments the reader will want to experience. My goal is not to make the reader cry. My goal is to make the reader care.

To answer the opening question, the last book that made me cry was The Disappearance by Genevieve Jurgensen, a memoir about her losing both of her young daughters to a drunk driver in one afternoon, and her subjequent recovery from that loss. It’s quite sad but also inspiring. I highly recommend it.


10 Tips on Writing Memoir

From a writer’s conference lecture last October and conversations with fellow writers at the Vermont writer’s residency:

1. The average length of a successful memoir is 260 pages. Some will be shorter, some longer, but this is the average.

2. It is okay to change people’s names, locations, relationships and other identifying characteristics in order to protect them and you.

3. It has to be the truth, but it is also “to the best of your recollection.”

4. There must be an arc. You’re a different person at the end than you were in the beginning. There must also be a change-lesson, a reason why people would care.

5. Know who your audience is. It will affect the language you use to tell the story. You are telling it to them.

6. Be careful with adjectives and adverbs.

7. Use both external internal dialogue. External for action, internal for emotion.

8. When looking for a publisher, start by finding the agent, publisher and editors for the memoirs that you love.

9. Three recommended memoirs (and links to their descriptions):

A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas

Marrying George Clooney – Musings From a Midlife Crisis by Amy Ferris

Dancing at the Shame Prom, a collection of confessions from 27 women, edited by Amy Ferris and Hollye Dexter

10. Four recommended books on writing memoir:

Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington
A very readable “textbook” that covers all the basics and also analyzes some memoirs and how the writers tackled certain issues.

Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, edited by William Zinsser
Memoir writers like Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison or Annie Dillard write about how they wrote their memoirs: what they struggled with, what their goals were for the book, how they finally found their voice, how their families reacted, etc.

Thinking About Memoir by Abigail Thomas
A memoir about writing memoir presented in little snippets of musing on writing, everyday life, and how she came to write her memoirs Safekeeping and A Three Dog Life.

Writing Life Stories: How To Make Memories Into Memoirs, Ideas Into Essays And Life Into Literature by Bill Roorbach
Friendly instruction and stimulating exercises on how to turn life stories into vivid personal essays and memoirs by learning to open up memory, access emotions, shape scenes from experience, develop characters, and research supporting details.

Please feel free to share your thoughts on these or other books in the comment section. This newbie memoir writer is still learning and reading up all these great books and authors.

Happy creating!