Writer’s Workshop: Studying the Craft

There are many ways to study the craft of writing. You can earn a bachelor’s degree in English. You can attain an MFA in creative writing. You can even take a few classes here and there to learn from experts.

But what should you do if you’re like me and have no intention on setting foot in another university as a student?

Read. That’s what! Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish. For me, that’s memoir.

Writers read, and it’s important to read books in the genre in which you intend to publish.

So, in 2018, I read ten memoirs to learn what bestsellers are made of and to understand what the pulse of a “good” memoir is. Here’s what I found out.

A “good” memoir focuses on one theme. My favorite memoir that demonstrates this basic principle is Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped. The overarching question is why have so many of the men in her community died? The quick answer is the interrelated nature of racism, poverty, and gender. The long answer is her 256-page memoir, where chapters are written in a seesaw fashion. One chapter is devoted to understanding one man’s in-depth story, while the next chapter reflects Ward’s life as it was related to each man. By the end of the memoir, Ward has clearly made a case for how systemic racism affects human beings.  

A “good” memoir has to present a bigger purpose. A bigger purpose doesn’t mean theme, necessarily, but it should answer the question: why is this author telling these stories? In My Dead Parents: A Memoir, Anya Yurchyshyn spends the first half of her book describing how much she disidentifies with her parents, how much she hates them, and how much their deaths don’t affect her. Part two digs deeper and explores who her parents really were prior to marriage and children and how this showed up in her life. This is ingenious. Anyone can write a book about why they dislike their parents. But she researches their histories as a way to see their identities, and then analyzes their lives outside of being her parents.

A “good” memoir weaves back and forth through time. This is a skill. Tara Westover’s Educated is superb at showing how to write a linear/not-linear story, which is important. While the overall story should be a cohesive narrative, it should travel back in time and then snap or slowly crawl back to the near present. For example, Westover remembers one of her brother’s violent acts from when she was an adolescent and then moves the story forward to a more recent memory of when she planned to visit home. The memory of the violence is important for how she will return and interact with her family in the book’s present.

A “good” memoir fits into a clear subgenre. Issa Rae uses humor for The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, which is a coming-of-age memoir. Kenan Trebinčević’s The Bosnia List: A Memoir of War, Exile, and Return is obviously a historical memoir, and so is The Girl Who Escaped Isis (Farida Khalaf and Andrea C. Hoffmann). Celebrity memoir is a thing, but more literary leaning ones, like Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime demonstrate sociocultural lessons. Finding Your Creative Muse explains more about these categories.

There’s nothing wrong with taking classes or seeking degrees; however, if you’d like to see what works for published authors, then I suggest reading in the genre you plan to write. I am also in no way advocating that you imitate the style of your favorite author. To me, that’s a no-no, but studying and learning about how others put words together? That’s a win for you and your growing body of work.

Are you intending to publish a book one day? Who’s your favorite author? What’s your favorite genre? What makes a book good?

Writer’s Workshop: Introductions

Introductions are important. Just think about your favorite song. Whether it’s the way the first note comes in or it’s the way an artist says the first word, the introduction to a song determines if you’ll continue listening or fast forward to something else.

Writing is no different.

A good first line or paragraph lets me know if I’ll be reading more of what the author has to say.

Let’s look at this intro to My Dead Parents:

My mother, Anita, died in her sleep in 2010, when she was sixty-four and I was thirty-two. The official cause of death was heart failure, but what she really died from was unabashed alcoholism, the kind where you drink whatever you can get your hands on, use your bed as a toilet when you can’t make it to the bathroom, and cause so much brain damage you lose the ability to walk unsupported. The case of her death was herself, and her many problems. (Anya Yurchyshyn)

As someone who spends a lot of time reading and studying the writer’s craft, I loved this introduction. As soon as I read these eighty-four words, I thought man, if this is how the story begins, then I can’t wait to read the rest of this book!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Therefore, I focus for several minutes (sometimes days) on how I will begin any piece of writing. Let’s take “Monday Notes: Seeking Perfection” as an example. Because this was a blog post, I knew I couldn’t waste time getting folks engaged. Initially, I wrote this:

I awoke in a Northwestern Memorial Hospital bed with two women staring at me, one was the nurse and the other, my mother. They told me I’d been hit by a car.

This wasn’t the most engaging introduction for a few reasons:

  1. Readers need to know why I was in the hospital sooner.
  2. Narrative is important. People prefer stories, even if they’re brief. So, I opted for an anecdote.
  3. Beginning in medias res (in the middle of things) is a strategy, but I’d begun too far in the middle. I needed to pull it back to provide a bit of context.

Ultimately, the introduction became this:

I was hit by a car when I was fourteen years old. It was a Saturday. Because my father was the youth pastor, we were going to church to pick up teens for an activity. When we arrived, my then best friend stood across the street in front of the building. She yelled out my name, and without a second thought, I darted into traffic.

This first sentence may be a bit of a shocker. Most people (friends, family, or bloggers) don’t know I was hit by a car. So, I’d argue that a reader would want to read more about this. The next few sentences rewind the story a bit so that you can understand how I was hit in the first place. Then, the remainder of the blog delves deeper into the actual topic: A small imperfection, such as chipping my tooth has bothered me since I was a teenager.

There are many ways you can begin your writing. I’ve just described one: beginning with a narrative. You can also ask a question, begin with a quote, provide a statistic, or give a description.

Have you ever thought about how to begin your writing? Do you just start writing? Do you have a favorite first line from a song or book? Let me know in the comments.

Monday Notes: Journaling

Last month, I presented on the benefits of journaling to a group of Black women creatives. I thought it would be helpful to share here, too.

In preparation for my presentation, I learned the difference between a diary and a journal is that a journal is meant to be reflective, as opposed to simply listing the day’s events. So, this one is specifically a reflective journal. The inside of the journal shown here is separated into sections. I’ve dedicated each one to a different subject that I can reflect on. For example, the forgiveness section is filled with short letters written to people I’ve needed to forgive. Contemplating on past entries shows me if there’s been growth. In the tarot section, I ask a question and then pull my cards and write down the answer. I compare last year’s answers with this year’s to determine if there’s been a change.

The second kind of journal I keep is a gratitude journal. I’ve maintained one of these every year, for the past ten years or so. My process includes the following: lighting incense, sitting in a quiet place, and writing those I AM statements I told you about. Usually, I affirm the same three things: I am love. I am adequate. I am important, unless I have something I’m working on, then I might add a new one, like I am abundant.

After I’ve finished affirming myself, I write five people, experiences, or things for which I’m grateful. I recently modeled this behavior for thirty days on social media as a way to disrupt negative news cycles and also as a way to remind myself there’s always something or someone to appreciate.

When I’m not writing in either of these bounded beauties, I’m journaling on my laptop or digitally. I first realized the power of simply sitting quietly and pouring out thoughts when my father died. That was 2015. We were in what I thought was the middle of repairing our strained relationship when he passed. I still had unresolved, unprocessed feelings that had to be released. So, I sat in my stepmother’s spare bedroom and wrote about the beginning of our dysfunction to the end, his death. I blogged these entries each day leading up to his funeral, creating a seven-day series. The global blogging community grieved with me and it was comforting.

I’ve also used a digital journal to capture and sort through unexpected emotions, like when I was traveling to a conference and TSA frisked my afro. I was compelled to write about the event immediately to capture the events and my feelings. I had no intention of publishing anything, until I posted about the situation on FB. One of my flight attendant friends told me searching hair was illegal. When I arrived at my hotel, I researched the topic and found out one woman had sued TSA for a similar experience. That’s when I turned my journal entry into a For Harriet publication.

Finally, most of you know I keep a cell phone journal. I use my iPhone Notes section because it’s more convenient and less ceremonial than the other ways I’ve mentioned. Thoughts occur if I’m in the middle of a conversation with someone, while I’m scrolling social media, or when I awake and fall asleep. During these times, I write a quick note. Other times, I’ll journal several paragraphs. The length depends on how deep my thinking is at the time. At any given moment, there are about 200 notes on my phone. If I can’t get the thought out of my mind, then the public gets to read it…as Monday Notes.

Here’s how I journal and why. Let me know if you keep any type of journal. What’s the point? Does it help?

Monday Notes: Do These 3 Things Before Self-Publishing!

I love supporting people and their endeavors. I also love supporting authors, especially if they are independently published. Over the past three years, I’ve read approximately fifteen self-published books. Five of these were just since January. And most of you know, I’m also independently published. So, I feel confident in offering a few suggestions for those of you who are almost ready to click that publishing button on Amazon, Lulu, Ingram Spark, or Create Space.

editor#1: Please pay for an editor. I know firsthand that editors can be costly. For The Unhappy Wife, I paid a little under $300 and for Daddy, approximately $700. But, I will tell you what. Not one person has approached me asking if I had either edited. This is important. When readers open your book, they are expecting quality, especially if they’ve spent over $10. They are not expecting to trip over misspelled words and syntax errors. In fact, for avid readers, this can be a turn off, not only from finishing the book, but also from trusting you as an author whose work they should read in the future.

#2: Please pay for formatting. I’ve read a few indie books that looked as if the person just uploaded their Word document to a platform for sale. This is a no-no. Sometimes the editor you paid from #1 can also format your book. However, be sure s/he understands the nuance between formatting for a printed book and formatting for an eBook. There is a difference. For example, an eBook has to be reflowable; this means the book reorganizes or reformats itself, no matter the device. It’s the reason you can read a book on your tablet or on your cell phone and it looks the same. Conversely, your printed book has to be created as a static version, and depending on the size of your book, there are also specific dimensions you must adhere to. An editor who knows formatting can help you with either of those.

open_book#3: Proofread your book prior to publishing. I know you’re probably like, KG, I already paid the editor all this money. Why do I have to proofread? Because I said so, that’s why. Just kidding. Let me tell you what happened to me. With Daddy, I paid someone to format, trusted her, and ordered 50 copies. I opened up the book and it was all kinds of terrible. Spacing was off. Words were missing for some reason. It just looked unprofessional. On top of that I had just wasted a couple hundred dollars ordering the books because I was not about to allow that copy to be purchased by the public. I ended up finding someone else and the book looks like the version you have in your possession.

If you’re looking for affordable formatting, Fiverr is a reputable site. I’ve used it before and paid no more than $25. The editor I trusted for Daddy is named Christine Schmidt at True-Blue Editing. Finally, I also have a business that offers proofreading, copy and line editing, called Writing Endeavors®. I’d love to work with you.

Best of luck if you’re planning to self-publish! If you have any other advice for these types of authors, then please feel free to share in the comments.

400 Monday Notes

I have 400 notes. That’s 179 more than when I first began this category, which I started as a way to delete the notes. But what’s happened is because I have the category, I keep more notes. You know…just in case I want to write about something. But as I look through them, they’re not all writing ideas. So, I’m purging.

A few of my notes are simply passwords. I’ve written about this before, but it ends today! There is no reason for me to keep password upon password both on my phone and written down somewhere. Although, keeping the password to get into my work office is handy. Maybe I’ll just keep that one.

Now, I’m down to 377.

There are fourteen notes specifically about my job dissatisfaction. The reason why has become increasingly clearer to me over the past few years. I’m overqualified and that has led to a general sense that I should be doing something else with my gifts and talents. And anyone with a job knows that it’s challenging to write about one’s employer without the fear of losing said job. While these fourteen notes have been helpful in shaping my understanding of the dilemma, they are now taking up digital space, especially if I’m not going to publicly share.

363.

Six of my notes are action steps centered on The Unhappy Wife, a book I published two years ago. I’m not quite sure why I’ve hung on to these lists if the goals are accomplished. Similarly, seven are about how to sell Daddy: Reflections of Father-Daughter Relationships. These aren’t fleshed out marketing plans, but rather, thoughts that I might’ve used to do a soft sell, like this:

If you want closure, then go see a therapist. If you want understanding and empathy, then read this book.

I’m pretty sure I never used it because it sounded a bit harsh. Either way, I’m down to 350.

img_7736There are ten notes specifically with the word “self” in the title. These are ideas I really intended to flesh out, like 3 ways to Be Self-aware, Re-defined: On Being Selfish, One-minute Self-worth Ideas. Because I’ve already devoted February 2018 to self-love, and with the help of others successfully shared varied ideas on the topic, I’m going to consider this mission complete.

340.

There are a fair amount of notes that are just people’s names, so I remember next time I see them, which seems borderline redonkulous because I don’t think I’m going to search my phone when we cross paths. Another part includes random places, like meeting rooms and events people have invited me to.

Deleted. Now, I’m down to 326.

For the most part, what remains are actual topics I’d planned on writing about, but as I re-read them, I’m just not. Instead, I’ll share a brief list of blog/social-media starters:

  • “So, I was watching videos of how the FBI infiltrated black organizations,” this is how Desi begins conversations with me.
  • I like confessional songs and memoirs because I’m seeking authenticity. Can I tell the truth in each moment? Can you? And if not, why?
  • Does it matter if your spouse practices the same religion as you?
  • Children are not people who need fixing.
  • 3 top knots in a Nissan Versa doing 48 on the interstate (this really happened and I thought I’d write a brief story about this beginning driver).
  • I hate guilt-trip gratitude. Usually sounds like this, remember someone didn’t wake up this morning. I should be grateful because I’m not in someone else’s shoes? Nope. You should be grateful period.
  • There is nothing you can buy outside of yourself that will make you a better/happier person.
  • I want someone to create a “Blame Trump” t-shirt. I’d buy it.
  • How many lies does it take to make someone a liar?
  • Sometimes you have to pull yourself away from situations, put yourself together, and then re-enter with a new mindset.

Welp, I’m down to 316 notes.

You know I’m happy to talk about any of these ideas. Let me know what you’re thinking. Until then, I’ll be working on a new Monday Note.

Monday Notes: Rambling/Stream of Consciousness

Stream of Consciousness is the name applied specifically to a mode of narration that undertakes to reproduce, without a narrator’s intervention, the full spectrum and continuous flow of a character’s mental process” (Abrams 299).

I’m leery to call what follows as stream of consciousness. But this is what my internal dialogue looks like. It’s innate for me to add periods and press the return key, even if it is in my Notes section. Does that mean it’s not stream of consciousness? Here it is. You be the judge.

***

I write about the little things because it’s the little things that keep us up at night. We wonder why we didn’t get the party invite, some of us even at 40+ still wonder. We worry about how our voices sound and how we look in video. You know who you are.

I write about the little things because they turn into big things. Little indiscretions turn into major experiences that we wonder how tf we got into. Small slides of behavior turn into whole acts of disrespect.

I write about the little hints because that’s what’s relatable. I save the big things for books: abuse, drugs, flaws of Christianity. Yes. The little things are daily. It’s where annoying coworker meets zen philosophy. It’s where wrong job choice meets law of attraction. I want to have discussions in the middle of those spaces. I want to know why you haven’t talked to your dad in 12 years and I’ll tell you what happened with mine. Hmmm…is that little or big? I guess it depends on the size of the hole in our heart.

***

img_7481After re-writing this as-is, I’ve decided it is stream of consciousness for me. You see if I were writing a final, public version, I wouldn’t use wonder twice. I would revise hints to things and probably not use things so much. I would capitalize Zen and Law of Attraction. I would have used the phrase “Christianity’s flaws,” not “flaw of Christianity” because one rolls off the tongue and the other doesn’t.

I would’ve titled this “The Little Things” or “Why I Write.” And I would’ve given more examples. For instance, I write about why people have a fifth drink when they should’ve stopped at two; three more drinks can turn a small decision into a fiasco or a lifetime regret. I would keep the rhetorical question in the end and add this: what I’ve learned is they’re all little things. What we choose to hold on to and how we decide to respond makes them seem larger than life.

Also, if I were being all formulaic and precise,  I would end with an MLA citation for that beginning quote 😉

Looking forward to hearing what you think about stream of consciousness or the topic.