What I Learned from a Memoir Writing Independent Study

2003 (2)

Dad, me, my brother, and Mom (circa 2003)

Memoirs are autobiographies for those who have a story to tell, not for those whose story has been told.

Last year, a friend and coworker from the Writing Lab mentioned that she had taken a memoir writing class. Though I’ve written a few novels, several short stories, and numerous poems, as well as a handful of personal essays, I had never, to my knowledge, written a nonfiction piece that read like a fiction piece, in which I was the protagonist.

My teacher, whom I’d had for Fiction Writing and Careers in Writing, agreed to do an independent study to meet the two-class requirement I needed for financial aid. Despite the pandemic, online options were still limited. 

Though I didn’t get feedback from other students on my pieces (which can be a hit or miss kind of thing), I got feedback from someone who has been doing this awhile—who doesn’t just teach about writing but is a writer herself. 

I’ve always struggled with coming up with essay-like stories about my life: I’d written about my summers in Poplar Bluff, when I was a live-in nanny in Montana, and when I left the Mormon Church, among a smattering of others, but these were all significant events, not everyday ones. Through this class, I learned how to take something small and write about it in a way that highlighted its significance.

I learned how to write a literary piece of nonfiction and improve my essay writing skills (and the differences between them). For literary nonfiction, I learned how to dig deep and remember things that were said, maybe not precisely (like you’d have to for a journalism piece), but close enough. This class inspired me to pay more attention and jot down things people say.

We discussed publishing for our last meeting, and there are many markets (not blogs or platforms, but paying markets) seeking personal nonfiction. I decided to avoid markets that prioritized authors who fit a certain demographic over stellar content. I am an average person writing for ordinary people, and I write about my life as an individual, not as a member of any special interest group. 

I learned more about myself through this process and felt more comfortable writing about myself in a way that made me human rather than the ever-sympathetic character. I was just thinking tonight that even though I don’t want people to think I’m not a nice person, I’d rather them think that than be a virtue signaler (and an obvious one at that). It is much more intrinsically rewarding to do something good in private. Before I post anything on social media, I question my motivations. Usually, it’s nothing more than just to entertain, show off my wit, or engage in a fun conversation. Once in a while, I share something that shares my values because I think it’s important not to be ashamed of what you believe. (Just don’t let yourself get into a long Facebook conversation about it. Ain’t nobody got time for that.) 

Though I came up with a dozen ideas for stories, I wrote about what it was like living in a shelter and being an expectant mother during this pandemic. I also wrote a humorous piece on growing up with avid genealogists for parents—a suburban Hillbilly Elegy but in a stable family environment. 

The last I consider one of my finest pieces of work. 

Though I love blog writing, most blog posts don’t have the timeless quality that memoirs do, for memoirs tell a story; they don’t try to convince you of anything (and they’re certainly not a rant). You get information from a memoir, but it isn’t informational, and it is something I will do more often—now that I know how to do it well.

From Writer’s Digest to Harlequin Romance: Finding my online writing community

Damask rose

“If you want to make money as a writer, write romance novels,” my Creative Writing teacher said, even suggesting we could write under a pen name.  As for me, if I’m going through all the trouble of writing a novel, my name is going to be on the thing.

So, why doesn’t romance get any respect?  Is it because some of it can be labeled as purple prose, the genre is predominantly written by women, or both?  I’ll just pull a Nicholas Sparks and call mine love stories.

As much as I enjoy the poetic form, it is more something I publish on my blog for fun to build name recognition.  Though there is a huge market for poetry, I’ve found that the kind of poetry I like to write (and read) often isn’t the kind being published, which is far too abstract for my taste.  This is what I like:  Saturday Evening Post Limerick Contest.

In all the poetry I’ve submitted, I’ve sold one poem: (Seven Wonders in Every Wonder), and it was published in a magazine (Bella Grace) that I enjoy reading from cover to cover.  Too often, I’ve read poetry journals, wondering what the hell some of it even meant.  I have much better luck with short stories and creative nonfiction (which take me a lot more time to write). 

That’s not to say I’m eschewing writing poetry to submit for publication altogether—I’m just reassessing what I spend my time writing for publications other than my own.

~

Now, I’ve gone and joined the Harlequin Writing Community Facebook page.  What’s great about this group is how supportive they are (men are welcome, too!).  They have  flash-type (400-word) writing challenges every couple of weeks or so, with some pretty stiff stipulations (which only makes it more challenging); moreover, they only give you a couple of days to write them.  The only two I’ve written so far have been historical (maybe they’re looking for a historical fiction writer?), for which I set my scenes in Ancient Greece and in South Carolina during the Civil War.  The best thing is that you get feedback on what you wrote—and not just comments from other writers but actual feedback from editors—like the type I get from my Creative Writing teacher.  I never got this with Writer’s Digest, so if you’re interested in writing romance, check it out:  So You Think You Can Write.

As for the Facebook page, I feel that I’m a better fit for that community.  I’m not just writing for a hobby—I want to make it my career.  Many of us are in the process of writing a book to submit to Harlequin.  I’m not there yet because I don’t have time for a large project (70K words), though I am in the stages of outlining it. 

~

Though I miss writing book reviews, I don’t have time to write a full-length one anymore, especially with as much as I read; I also quit the university newspaper, as half the articles I wrote never got published.  Though I respect the editor’s decision not to print (or rather, post them), I spent too much time conducting interviews and transcribing audio for them not to get published.  I was graciously invited by the adviser to submit an opinion piece, so that is something I may consider after I finish this American Lit class that’s kicking my keister. 

Rather, I’m making the push to write more short stories (I’ve been reading everything Shirley Jackson has written and rewatching most of The Twilight Zone series—the legit one with Rod Serling; however, if the episode is about Nazis, boxing, or set in the Wild West, I skip it).  I got too hung up on writing novels (with short stories, you get paid once; with novels, you get royalties), but some stories just aren’t novel length.  This realization has opened up a whole world of possibilities for many of my ideas, which have remained dormant for years.  I’d been writing poetry and working on my novel (Because of Mindy Wiley) for so long that I’d forgotten how great short fiction (and creative nonfiction) can be. 

For now, I do expository writing for the Medium publishing platform: Medium/Sarah Richards, in addition to reposting my best blog posts.  I still have a couple of other accounts where I post short works that will eventually end up on my blog (I am planning an ebook on the writing craft, but I need to become more published to have credibility; I am also planning a book of short poetry for people who don’t like poetry), so it’s a two for the price of one deal.  I feel like I’ve finally found my writing niche, as well as future homes for my writing. 

Taking a college-level Creative Writing class, joining the Harlequin community, and letting go of some other things that were no longer paying off (but were, nevertheless, part of the process), has helped me reach this point. 

5 Ways I’ve Used Minimalism to Improve my Writing

Instagram screenshot

My Instagram posts

Instagram: Poetry Unfiltered

Every Saturday and Sunday, I publish a “Post-It-sized” poem on Instagram. I used to feel that I had to make each poem “pop” with the use of filters until I realized that such was unnecessary. I could feel the seconds being wasted, trying to come up with just the right filter, so I started screenshotting my poem with my phone via Google Docs and publishing it as is with the hashtag #nofilter. I realized there is a certain beauty in stark white and bold black. Coming up with appropriate hashtags take enough of my time.

Images are (Almost) Everything

Because I blog a minimum of twice weekly, it helps to recycle images, especially with my recurring features: Micropoetry Mondays and Fiction Fridays. For Monday, if my theme is “The Lighter Side” or “Opposites,” I use the same graphic; eventually, I will design my own logo for Micropoetry Monday, so I can ditch the stock photography all together (I’ve already scrubbed my blog of most of it). Because Fiction Fridays are all excerpts from my book or poetry based on it, I use the same graphic. Even when it comes to LinkedIn, rather than using a stock photo, I use my business card in basic black and plain white (without my personal address or telephone number) and an eye-grabbing headline. However, since I’ve discovered the Medium Daily Digest’s publishing platform (https://medium.com/), which is lot more attractive than LinkedIn’s (and not about boring corporate culture), I use an abstract photo—usually a close-up of something loosely related to the quotation I paste over it.  (And my quotes are always original.  There is enough recycled content out there.)

Strunk and White + Stephen King = Needful words

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is one grammar book that changed my writing (and maybe my life). It is what I call a hornbook for all writers. I applied its principles to my writing when I worked for my community college newspaper for several semesters, which helped me with conciseness (though I would still try to sneak in the Oxford comma). In On Writing by Stephen King, King says to “Kill your darlings”; I say you have to kill your characters (meaning the alphabet kind). Writing also helped me chuck 99% of my adverbs; nothing beats “he said” or “she said.” You want those dialogue tags to be invisible. I credit these two books and my experience as a student reporter in helping me get the job as a clarity editor for Grammarly.

Social media < Writing, Editing, Submitting

When I started my blog in October 2013, I thought I had to be as omnipresent as possible when it came to social media, but, after an incredible amount of spam I received on Twitter and people following just to get a follow, I ditched it and Pinterest, too. Facebook, Instagram, Goodreads, and LinkedIn is enough for me. (Often, what I post in one place gets posted in another). What time I used to spend trying to brand myself on all those social media accounts I could be spending building my vocabulary, submitting to actual publications, etc. I don’t have time to engage with all my followers — I need readers who aren’t writers. After more than three years of posting my Wednesday and Poem-a-Day prompts (in April and November) for Writer’s Digest on their blog and mine, I realized it was time for me to move on, which simplified my writing life even more. I needed content I could write ahead of time, so I could schedule it to publish on my blog at a later date. 

Submissions: Kitchen-Sink Theory Does Not Apply

I used to think I had to flood the market with submissions rather than focus on a handful of publishers. Targeting your publications gives you time to read and study them; submission guidelines alone will not provide intuition into what the editors are looking for. I have since discovered that my work would not be considered literary, so most small presses would not be a good fit; I have a better shot at larger publishers because of their more mainstream content. If I pick up a journal and don’t “get” any of the poems, then it’s the wrong publication for me; if I pick up a magazine and don’t enjoy any of the stories, then it’s not a good fit for my writing. This keeps me from being overwhelmed with reading material.

#Fiction Fridays: #Micropoetry Based on the Book

Every day, I post 3 tweets:  a #novelines tweet (a line from my novel; any good piece of writing has quotable quotes), a #140story tweet, or a #micropoetry tweet, that is pulled from, or based on my novel, “Because of Mindy Wiley”.  https://sarahleastories.com/because-of-mindy-wiley/.  I post these under my fictional character account, https://twitter.com/KatrynNolan.  Every week, on “Fiction Friday”, I will be blogging 5-10 of my best tweets.

My goal is to gain a significant number of followers so that maybe an agent or publisher will take a chance on my book–all part of building my author’s platform.

I have to say that tweeting my book (rather than blogging it) has helped me scrutinize the work in a new way.  Words like really, very, that, and just are getting the strike, and if there is a place where one word can be used instead of two, I do.  (Contractions don’t count.)

My goal is that by the time I have tweeted through the entire 210K words (which I figured will be about 5 years), I will have trimmed at least 10,000 words from the final product.  If I haven’t found a traditional publisher in a reasonable amount of time (to be determined), I will be ready to self-publish it through createspace.com (an Amazon affiliate).  Once I have tweeted through the entire book, I will start all over again with new tweets.

I have to say, I have hit my blogging stride by having “feature days”, like #Micropoetry Mondays, #Fiction Fridays, and the midweek Writers Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt.  However, I will still have the occasional “special feature”, or oddball post, as I will never quite be a “hard-theme” blog that only posts on writing.

Mormoni

“Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”  (Exodus 20:3)

David was my temple,
and at his altar,
I worshipped—
for he was neither spirit nor stone,
but warm flesh,
and a heart deceitful above all things.

In His Name,
much evil had been done.
In the name of love,
such had been done with me.

Twas when I became a Saint,
I learned that the glory of God
is intelligence,
for He knew all there was to know.

1999 was the summer of love,
the spring of a new life,
the autumn of my girlhood,
and the winter of my childhood.

I was harvested from the sand
by God, to become a star,
only to fall from Heaven once more.

What I Learned Last Writers’ Meeting (from an honest-to-God publisher of books)

So I belong to a local writer’s group called WriteOn! Pensacola.  Last week was the first time we had a guest speaker (Dan Vega, from Indigo Publishing).  I not only had a blast, but I learned a ton about what publishers are looking for (this one in particular).  I learned that I am totally okay with forfeiting my rights–I still win.  I get my book published, make money, a movie based on it is made, generating more book sales, and I make even more.  However, if it is a bestseller, then it’ll be the one and only time I’ll do that.

I learned that this is a lady to check out:  http://peggymccoll.com/, and you must be involved on social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter).  I consider this blog a bonus.

Some tips for submitting to a publisher:

Figure out your target age range within a 15 year mark (such as age 35 to 50 years old). Is it more male than female? Go as narrow as possible at first. (Really.)

Find out why people should read your book, so you know how to market it later.

How is a person different after reading your book? (You have to have a “vision” for your book.  This was really hard.  The only vision I’d had before was that it’d become a bestseller.)

Readers today want shorter books (we have 12 seconds–the attention span of a goldfish–to hook a reader).  Books between 125 and 175 pages Paperback, 8.5×11 Or 6×9 in size are recommended.

Self-help books, biographies, business books are easier to market than novels.  Cookbooks and children’s books are a bit harder to sell because of more time and less profit margin involved.

~

So, I attached my novel, “Because of Mindy Wiley”, to an e-mail to Mr. Vega and his staff at Indigo River Publishing, with these notes:

Genre:  Southern Gothic Horror

Word count:  220,000 (Book is naturally divided into three parts, so I would be willing to publish it as a series).

Audience:  Female, between the ages of 20-35; those who enjoyed “Flowers in the Attic” and “Peyton Place” would like “Because of Mindy Wiley”; also, former Mormons.

Vision:  To provide pure escapism while bringing awareness to how rigidly aligning with any religion can improve or diminish one’s life or the lives of others around them.

Online presences in which to promote book:

  1. Facebook account
  2. LinkedIn account
  3. sarahleastories.wordpress.com
  4. twitter.com/SarahLeaSales

The end.

Of course, I always think of something I should have included after I’ve hit send.  Though my book is primarily a Southern Gothic horror, there is also a light touch of magical realism (think Alice Hoffman) to it.

On Writing

Being a part of a local writer’s group has enriched my writing experience immensely. Through it, I’ve met like-minded people to share my work with, made new friends, and I’m always super motivated after the meeting—a feeling that carries me till the next.

I’ve taken a hiatus from my novel writing and am concentrating on completing shorter pieces; writing a novel is a grand investment of one’s time.

Writing smaller pieces, I can submit more work and enter more contests, thus increasing my chances of being published and maybe even making a little money.

I decided, after querying over fifty agents, that self-publishing is probably going to be the way to go with my first novel. I just want to get this one book out there and be done with it. I love the writing part of the business, but the introvert in me hates the marketing part. I’m a writer, not a salesgirl.

I had considered publishing it under the pseudonym of Katherine Mayfield (a character from Beverly Lewis’s series, The Heritage of Lancaster County, who leaves the Amish faith to become a Mennonite), but it just wouldn’t be the same with another name on the cover.

shoes