Write for Your Life but avoid the red flags

I’ve recently had a quite a bookish time: I had my first memoir mentoring session last Friday (in lieu of the workshop I missed), attended a session at the Victorian Writers’ Centre on how to craft a pitch to publishers – “Every writer should be prepared to explain their story in one sentence,” (a quote from a literary agent), and then on Monday I was back at the Writers’ Centre for a panel discussion entitled ‘All About Agents.’

Memoir-writing is very much in vogue at the moment which is good in some ways but also means more competition! One of the main things I took away from my mentoring session is to ignore the pesky critic that sits atop many a writer’s shoulder chattering away along the lines of: why would anyone want to read my story, I’m not good enough, I haven’t lead an interesting enough life (climbed Everest, sailed solo round the world, invented something new or changed the world) plus my family and friends might not approve etc.

Because we all have a story to tell – if we’re brave enough– and we all have our unique voice, style and perspective on life. The challenge, and I say this as someone who is good at glossing the tricky stuff and making it funny, is to connect with the raw emotion and to write from an authentic space. So, for example, if you’re writing about your childhood, you need to take yourself back to that time and channel the younger you, not the wise adult writing with the benefit of hindsight. It’s a fine line balancing the light and the dark. Spiri, my mentor, suggested I read “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo” by writer and comedian Luke Ryan. Have any of you come across it? Or does anyone have any good memoirs to recommend?

One way to stimulate and inspire life story writing is to draw on diaries, photographs and other memorabilia. When I shipped my remaining belongings from the UK to Australia a few years ago, I included a box of diaries, letters and other keepsakes. In the back of my mind I thought they might come in handy one day. I’ve had a lot of fun reading my diary from 1973. Interestingly it was quite a turbulent time in my family – marital mayhem and moving schools to name but a few challenges – and yet my entries are totally matter of fact: meals; visits to grandmothers; aunts; shopping trips; fun fairs; school; friends; and endless accounts of the weather ( I reckon I picked the weather obsession up from my mother!). Apart from describing a few horrable hedaches (my spelling had a way to go as you might expect from a nine year-old going on ten), a nasty tonsillectomy that made me throw up eight times and a not-so-good day or two at school, my daily accounts are almost devoid of emotion. I think that will change as I get older and my dairies become more private – as in lockable!

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The pitching essentials workshop run by journalist and author Maria Katsonis was fun too. We did some practical exercises and had to come up with a 30-second elevator pitch for our book, identify comparison titles and develop a mini synopsis describing our story or concept in one paragraph. The pitch Maria used was: ‘A true story about me and my experience of mental illness set against the backdrop of growing up gay in a traditional Greek family’. She admitted that it took quite some time to come up with something as concise and pithy: brevity is definitely the name of the game. I cheated a bit as I had already come up with some of these pitches for my A-Z but I may have to change them as my new project emerges. As for comparison titles I have been saying – but again this may change – that my book is Eat, Pray, Love crossed with Bridget Jones meets Embarrassing Bodies (the TV show). Go figure…

Red flags to avoid include explaining how or why you came to write the story, how much you’ve wanted to write since you were a child and how much your family and friends love your work. Hmm… I’ve fallen into a few of those clichéd traps before now. And never comment on the quality of your work. Your writing should speak for itself – it’s the show don’t tell rule.

It was somewhat sobering to hear the agents talking. One of them confessed she gets up to 38 submissions a week, more than she can possibly read. The focus for agents needs to be on the commercial potential of your work – if they can’t sell it they don’t make any money (typically they take 15% of all sales) and on career longevity versus one shot wonders! I was amazed to hear that so many writers fail to read the guidelines on an agent’s website and send in strangely formatted works in all different fonts or submit more words than requested. All no-nos that will consign you to the bin.

But I’m a long way off red flags and the editorial bin. My homework for the week is to identify the key themes of my story and how they might group together and, from there, build some kind of overarching framework.

2 thoughts on “Write for Your Life but avoid the red flags

  1. My diaries from when I was young are quite fun to read as well. I had one that locked, but always kept the key attached to the pen that was attached to the diary. So… not very effective 🙂 Happy IWSG day!

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