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!


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.

Singing Away the Blues

A couple of weeks ago a literary agent based in the States expressed interest in my book, Slowing Down in the Fast Lane: from Adventure to Zen and Everything in Between, and asked me to send the full manuscript. She seemed to love the concept and I had high hopes that she might want to represent me. On Monday morning, however, my hopes were dashed. Ouch! She emailed to let me know that she didn’t feel that the A-Z format worked “for the necessary emotional journey a reader must take with the author in a work of memoir.” A publisher in Queensland who loved my writing and humour said pretty much the same thing. It wasn’t so much the rejection that left me a bit flat but the thought, that after so much writing, re-writing, perfecting and polishing, I might have to embark on a total re-write.

But, of course, attempting to write a book and get it published is rarely a straightforward process. And it requires a great deal of patience and perseverance. On Monday I was lacking in both and ended up humming that Boomtown Rats song I don’t like Mondays ! That’s the thing about being self-employed, there’s no one to whinge to; you have to jolly yourself along. I’m mostly very good at motivating myself but nothing seemed to be flowing at the start of the week. It didn’t help that work was a bit thin on the ground in typical feast and famine freelance fashion.

Thankfully, however, Monday night is choir night. I decided to leave my hangdog day (and my beloved puppy dog) at home and throw myself into the singing. Our usual repertoire ranges from African harmonies, negro spiritual and chain gang songs to Russian ballads, Celtic folk tunes and sea shanties with a bit of contemporary stuff thrown in. But before we start signing, we loosen up with a workout for mind, body, voice and spirit which involves a series of meditative, breathing and vocal exercises followed by a bit of stretching and dancing around. How good it was this week to do the tongue sticking out routine – blahhhhhh, bluuuhhhh– and let go of the day’s frustration.


At the end of the evening our Choir Director Richard came up to me and – quite unprompted – said: “Hello Charlotte! Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Was he a mind reader? Did he know that I had spent the day battling book and impending big birthday blues? As in, I am halfway through my life – if not more – and, well, you know, dum de dum. What do I have to show for it? So ran my inner judge and critic on Monday. “Think about your triumphs and don’t listen to the negative chatter that comes up at three in the morning,” suggested Richard. I was about to come up with a great long list of all the non-triumphs (it’s so easy to default to that) but then realised that taking a huge leap of faith and moving to Australia nearly ten years ago has to be my biggest triumph to date.

I returned home with a deep sense of gratitude that I belong to such a wonderful choir full of like-minded, supportive and creative souls – it’s no coincidence we’re called Soul Song. And then I remembered two other huge triumphs. I took part in a solo singing workshop earlier this year and sang a Buena Vista Social Club song in Spanish to the rest of the group (amazing in itself as not so long ago I’d have almost preferred to strip naked than sing a solo), and then at our recent choir retreat, I learnt how to use a microphone and experimented with the same song – giving it my all. It really is never too late to change your life and find your voice.

Feeling the fear and doing it anyway...

Feeling the fear and doing it anyway…

As for the book, I’m going to see if I get any other bites before I change the format. I didn’t really set out to write a memoir, more a humorous anthology of life adventures… and misadventures. Perhaps I’ve been marketing it in the wrong way. I might take a straw poll and get some feedback in a future blog. Who knows, perhaps by the next zero birthday, I will be a published author.

I wannabe published...

I wannabe published…