Posts Tagged memoir

Reaching readers if you write in multiple genres – could crowdfunding be the answer? An interview

What do you write? Not so long ago, most authors had to choose a genre and stick to it. But many of us are far more versatile. Our minds and our hearts don’t stand still. Book by book, we push boundaries or leap into genres where we hadn’t previously felt at home. As life reinvents us, we move on in our work.

No-one worried about that in the Renaissance, but it rarely went down well in traditional publishing, perhaps for sound commercial reasons. But now authors have more tools to reach audiences by our own efforts. We can take charge of our careers and our creative destinies. Will this breed of polyphonic, genre-agile author finally have their day?

I do hope so.

This path isn’t always easy, and that’s what I want to explore today.

You might recognise my interviewee – Victoria Dougherty, who recently hosted me on her blog and has also been a guest on The Undercover Soundtrack.

We’ve both got eclectic portfolios. I’ve done non-fiction with my Nail Your Novel books and literary fiction that sometimes nudges into futurism. Victoria writes Cold War historical thrillers and personal essays. We’ve both written memoir after a fashion – she has Cold; I have Not Quite Lost. And Victoria has a radical new departure into young adult historical romance, Breath (coming summer 2018). What’s more, she’s having her first stab at crowdfunding – another brave new world.

We’ll come back to the crowdfunding in a bit. My first question was this: how have you ended up with such a varied oeuvre?

Victoria Honestly, I think I’m just bored easily. And I’m usually writing more than one story at a time, too. I find it keeps the creative juices flowing and also adds texture to my work.

Roz How do you manage them all?

Victoria Currently, I’m switching between Breath edits, storyboarding a new Cold War thriller, and writing essays on everything from family squabbles to creating compelling male characters.

Roz So much for versatility. What’s consistent in your work?

Victoria History, spirituality, family lore, dark humour. All of those tend to find their way into my work in one way or another.

Roz I have recurring themes too. I am curious about forces that lie beneath the surface; unusual ways we can be haunted and how we seek soulmates. At heart I’m an unashamed romantic. Places with lively pasts are often a trigger for me – crumbled mansions, houses scheduled for demolition, seaside towns closed for the winter.

Victoria I’m so with you on this, and I, too, get haunted by places. I wrote The Bone Church after visiting an ossuary near Prague with my then infant son. There were bones piled up all over the place. It occurred to me how there were so many different manners of death in that small chamber. People who had died of childbirth, a sword to the ribs, plague, a broken heart. The whole experience made me ache – but in a good way.

The ossuary at Kutna Hora, Prague. Pic by David Staedtler

Roz Your latest project is for a new audience – YA fantasy. What steered you in this direction?

Victoria I never thought I’d write in this genre. Especially a romance, which is a genre I haven’t read very much of. But several years ago, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Modern Love column in their Sunday edition. It was about my youngest daughter being born with a catastrophic illness and how that brought my mother and me closer together. It was also about the curious, counter-intuitive blessings that come with tragic events. Things like wisdom, deeper friendships and getting to know people so far out of my own little universe. Hospitals are tremendously equalising that way.

I could not have imagined the response I got from that essay. People began writing to me, telling me about their stories – their love stories specifically. I have a blog, Cold, where I write personal essays, so it wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for people to tell me about their lives, but this was different.

Told you you’d seen this before

Without meaning to, I started training my writer’s eye on love. I noticed that every time I wrote an essay about love – especially the romantic kind – there was a swell of interest. Then I started writing little love stories for my own amusement – sometimes no more than a paragraph long. One of those, about a girl born at the dawn of civilisation, became the basis for Breath.

Roz And Breath is more than just prose, isn’t it? There’s artwork too.

Victoria I’m a very visual person. I love old photographs especially, and as I was writing Breath, I dreamed up a pre-Sumerian civilisation and imagined myself on an archaeological dig, excavating my characters’ lives. That’s when I started thinking of adding a visual component to this novel – original artwork from the world I’d dreamed up and old, brown-tinted photographs from some of the great archaeological digs, like the ones taken in Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century. And I loved the idea of writing about past, present, and perhaps even future archaeologists, as they uncovered my fictional universe and helped my characters solve the mysteries of their existence.

Roz So the visuals will be published in the book? Or will they be a separate special edition?

Victoria Both. I think prose and images go together like a face and a voice and can really enhance a story – especially if it’s a planned epic, where a whole world is being created. This isn’t to spoon-feed a certain aesthetic to a reader, never that, but to enhance their experience with elements of beauty and mystery that go beyond the written word. Take their imaginations even further.

Roz Let’s talk about crowdfunding Breath. How did that happen?

Victoria I’m one of 10 authors selected by Instafreebie – a company that connects readers and authors – to pilot a program that teaches authors how to use crowdfunding not only to fund projects but to energise and expand their fan base.

Roz To me, crowdfunding has one rather offputting aspect – having to push for contributions. But obviously you’ve found a balance that suits you. Tell me how you do it – and how other authors might be persuaded to embrace it!

Victoria This is without a doubt the hardest thing to get over. I’ve come to look at it this way: crowdfunding is a bit like venture capital for artists. No-one blinks when any other business raises money, but somehow artists are expected to self-finance, often work for free and even give their work away without any compensation. I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking and in fact find it untenable.

Roz I’m totally with you there. I’ve blogged about it at length elsewhere. We can’t give the impression that books can be produced out of fresh air or just for love, like a hobby. Even priests and doctors get paid. All the other people who work for us need to be paid. Creating books is not free. And writing them isn’t either.

Victoria For most artists, entrepreneurship is the only way we can continue to do what we do. We need to move beyond our own reticence and value what we offer. Joy, meaning, reflection, empathy, and entertainment are worthy and important elements in our lives. They should never be taken for granted.

You mentioned doctors, so I’ve got a good analogy for you: I remember my doctor, who was from Sri Lanka and used to run a medical clinic for the poor there, telling me how once they started charging patients, the entire dynamic of the clinic changed. They were serving the poor, so they only charged a pittance, and were barely able to buy coffee with what they took in, but both the function and the spirit of the clinic changed remarkably. Not only did the patients become more vigilant about their health, they trusted the doctors more and were far more likely to listen to their advice and change unhealthy behaviours. The overall health of the clinic population improved as a result.

The same is true with us artists and the people who consume our work, I think. It’s a pretty basic human response – to invest in something that means something to you rather than just be a passive observer.

Roz I want to do some tyre-kicking here because what you say is so important. A lot of crowdfunding campaigns don’t meet their targets. How do we get people to care enough? Especially as readers could buy a book that’s already finished and have it immediately. What makes them want to pledge money and wait for the product? How are you tackling these challenges?

Victoria Not only has this crowdfunding process forced me well beyond my comfort zone, it has illuminated how to deepen my relationships with present and future readers so that they feel connected and my characters begin to feel like a real part of their lives. Like family.

Roz How are you doing that? Can you give examples? You’ve mentioned to me that it’s already been a formative and amazing experience. Tell me how! And what feedback have you had from supporters to show that it’s working?

Victoria For me, it’s about creating value and making the experience as interactive as possible. Writers spend a lot of time alone and most of us are interior people, but we’re not necessarily introverts. We love being able to talk to readers and feel honoured when they share their stories with us. In fact, I truly consider readers like friends. We confide in each other, support each other, and are there during times of loneliness and self-doubt. The rewards I’m offering in my Breath campaign reflect that. It’s not only a matter of offering advance copies, which are great, but deleted scenes from the novel, personal emails, an exclusive short story and even story-consulting.

Roz Are there any common mistakes that authors make with crowdfunding and community building?

Victoria The first mistake is that they won’t try it. I can tell you without reservation that even if my campaign isn’t a funding success, what I will have learned and experienced in this process has been worth it. As for campaign mistakes – there are a lot of them, and I would have made them all if I hadn’t gotten such excellent advice from Instafreebie.

Videos are crucial. People want to know who they’re dealing with. It builds trust and makes your page more interesting. Really thinking through rewards you offer, so that when people get involved, they feel like they got something substantial in return for their support. Always, always focus on the reader. That’s probably the most important part.

Roz You mentioned that Instafreebie is helping with tactics, especially in terms of using the campaign to establish a long-term fanbase. How does that work? Can you tell us a few surprising things they’ve taught you? What is the basis of their expertise?

Victoria First, they will be featuring our books in their newsletter and then sharing our campaigns with those who expressed interested in our genres. They’re doing their best to create a virtuous circle for us. Most importantly, they’ve taken us through – step by step – the way to build a successful campaign page. That doesn’t mean the campaigns themselves will all be successes – even veteran campaigners have unsuccessful campaigns under their belts – but it helps us minimise mistakes, certainly.

Roz I want to return to where we started – the author who doesn’t fit into tidy boxes. There supposedly are two ways to market books – by category and by author. The latter is the slow road, because we have to seek commitment on a deeper and more individual level.

But whatever we write, I think community will become more significant for all of us. And everything you’ve been saying here chimes with this prediction by Orna Ross at the Alliance of Independent Authors.

More and more authors will embrace the craft and trade of publishing and business as well as that of writing, and develop sustainable author businesses that allow them to make a living from their writing. At the heart of this will be working out their offering to readers and how to build a  community around that offering.’

I love this emphasis on community. Although writing is apparently a solitary activity, we have phenomenal resources for harnessing the positive energy that readers give us if they like our work.

I think readers enjoy keeping in touch and – like you say – feeling involved. I’ve particularly noticed it after publishing Not Quite Lost. People feel they know me. It opens a conversation and they want it to continue. And that’s lovely. It’s not cynical, about selling.

Some authors are setting up private Facebook groups – though I feel that’s risky because Facebook likes to move the goalposts if they think they can monetise. I’ve started using my newsletter much more. In that past, I didn’t know what to do with it.

I used to send newsletters only when I had a book or a course to launch. A year could go by before I had a piece of news, and all the while I was losing touch with people who hoped I was working on another book. So I decided I’d try writing more regularly, about the in-between times while a book is taking shape. Sometimes it’s about making progress; sometimes it’s about life and going round in circles. Like a blog but more personal. Some people unsubscribed because that wasn’t what they were expecting, or they’d forgotten why they were ever interested, but most have stayed with me. (Winning smile: if you want to try it out, it’s here.)

What I’ve described here is slow, of course. It has to grow organically. And here’s where I guess crowdfunding creates an occasion, a way to invite people in because it’s the start of something. It not only kick-starts a book, it can kick-start your community.

Have you got any final thoughts on this?

Victoria You said it so well. We’re in this for the long game and it’s not cynical. It’s actually very special and deeply gratifying.

You can tweet Victoria on @vicdougherty, find her blog here, here books here, and her Kickstarter campaign here. 

Thanks for the ossuary pic Davis Staedtler on Flickr

What am I up to behind the scenes? My latest newsletter

And this blog begins 2018 on two lovely best-of lists. Both The Write Life and Feedspot nominated it as a Top 100 site for writers and self-publishers. If any of you were instrumental in this, xxxxxxxx

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The culture of a close marriage and weird little trips – guest spot at Victoria Dougherty’s COLD

I ran into Victoria Dougherty a while ago in a Facebook group and recognised a kindred spirit. Not just because she writes fiction, personal essays and memoir, but because of the way she is inspired by family, place and relationships. (Take a look at this piece, Growing Old(er) Together, and tell me you don’t want to know her too.) She took a shine to Not Quite Lost and invited me to her blog, Cold, for a chat about the culture of a long marriage, the delight of exploring places that no-one else would bother with, the micro-cultures of quiet English towns and whether I should get out more. She raided my photo album too, as you can see. Do come over.

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A childhood home: read an excerpt from Not Quite Lost – in The Woolf

Those walls and rooms, the fields under that bright spread of sky, contained me in my earliest years. A family house is one of your guardians. As a quiet, imaginative child, I had spent as much time alone with it, on my inward paths, as I had with its people. I had a relationship with it in its own right.’

This is from the opening piece in Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction, just published in the winter edition of The Woolf. The piece is an obituary for the Arts & Crafts house in Alderley Edge, Cheshire that was my family home and was demolished in February. The Woolf has made a special feature including my photos, so if you’re already familiar with the piece you can see the wood-panelled hall, the distant view of Jodrell Bank radio telescope, the house with its original windows and its ‘bus-garage’ makeover that I was so snooty about. And a rare sighting of the giant stone ball that caused a madcap afternoon long, long ago. Do come over.

Prefer to go straight to the book? Find it here.

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The end of exploration – on writing a book where you can’t make things up

If you get my newsletter or follow me on Facebook or Google+ you’ll have seen dancing and jubilation as Not Quite Lost is finally ready for general parading and pre-order.

It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.

The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps  – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought.  There’s something in that story.

When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.

So what do you do?

I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.

Full circle

This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.

And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.

My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.

Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.

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How to write what you don’t know – research tips for writers

6930840018_583f784d83Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.

Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.

So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.

Good first-hand accounts

Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.

Guides for writerNot really undeads

There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.

What everybody else may already know

If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.

Photographs

Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.

Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.

Befriend an expert

Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.

You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.

Thanks for the travel pic moyan_brenn

What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!

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Should I write a memoir, a novel or a fictionalised memoir?

If you want to write a book from your life experiences, which is the best option? I’ve had this rather interesting question…

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time working across the globe as a freelance soldier. I am committing my adventures to text to shine a light on the realities of that world. Far from the blood and gore of Tony Geraghty’s Guns for Hire, I want to explore the personal torment so many go through and the struggles they face in balancing domestic life and freelancing. Would this be better written as a personal recollection or a novel like Lee Childs’s Jack Reacher series?- Michael

My first reaction is, can I be your agent? Wow, what a story. Not many people who offer themselves to the publishing world have such a unique premise. You should definitely write a memoir first. If it does very well, you’ll find yourself asked to write novels anyway. Many successful publishing careers have started with a best-selling memoir – although, of course, there are many memoirs published that don’t hit the big time.

If you have ideas for novels, work them up too to demonstrate that you can be a long-term investment. (If you haven’t, it’s not a deal-breaker. If they’re really keen they’ll send you to someone like me 🙂 )

Are you legally allowed to write it?

Make sure you’re allowed to write this book. In your case it sounds as though you want to focus on the personal story rather than operational details. But many writers with dynamite memoirs can’t publish because of libel laws, the Official Secrets Act or possible death threats.

Libel is when you harm a person’s reputation. You can relate events if you can prove they’re true. If you’re delving into people’s motives you have to be careful, or get the subject’s permission. But don’t let this scare you – people do write quite searching, searing memoirs. Just make sure you’re fully informed.

Publishers will not protect you

Writers often think that if they have a publisher to hide behind, it will protect them. It won’t. Although publishers have lawyers they can show manuscripts to, they usually only do that with the famous or infamous – otherwise it’s not worth paying the fees. (Sorry.) Publishing contracts always have a clause that makes you responsible for any harm (ie legal harm) caused by your book. Even if it’s only a twinkly fairy tale.

Be honest – do you want to be honest?

Are you willing to write honestly and fully about the experience? This is going to be a story about the effect on your family and friends. They won’t all be angels – and if they are, the book won’t ring true. Will they mind if you peel them in public?

I’ve seen many manuscripts from writers who are examining traumatic periods from their lives. While they delve truthfully into their own hell and bad behaviour, they balk at doing the same to their loved ones.

We novel-writers are frequently asked by friends or family if we’ve put them into books. If we deny it, they often don’t believe us. In a memoir there is no cloak of fictionality. They know, without doubt, that you did.

Should you write a fictionalised memoir?

This is the hybrid option – not quite truth, not fully invented. You take a real experience apart and make a story that is true in essence, even if not keeping to the precise detail.

I get approached by a lot of people who want to write about a major change in their lives, such as unusual travel experiences or giving up a high-flying career to start anew in a foreign country. Speaking with my cruel marketing hat on, these are not as unusual as Michael’s story. It’s probably better to mine them for a novel instead, where you have licence to make something bigger and more distinctive than reality. In that case fictionalised memoir might be a good option.

From the moment you cross into fiction, fiction rules apply. Start with what really happened, but do not shrink from adding, cutting and inventing until you have the best story and the most usable characters. What’s the difference between that and ‘real’ fiction, if there is such a thing? Probably not much.

Huh?

Fictionalised memoir is mainly a label to get more attention in an overcrowded market. It says ‘this is a story, but it is written from what I truly lived’. Some readers like that; some are profoundly irritated and want either truth or fiction. They certainly don’t want to question whether you made the best bits up.

Attention!

The problem with being a debut writer is getting attention. Readers – and publishers – buy the author’s story as much as they buy the book. For that there’s a pecking order.

1 – Memoirist – translates as ‘read my book because this is my extraordinary life and it’s fascinating’

2 – Fictional memoirist – ‘read my book because it’s fiction based on my inimitable experiences’

3 – Novelist – ‘read my book, I made it up from extensive research, the depth of my human understanding and the pure dedicated application of my craft’

Believe me, it hurts to write that list. It’s not a comment on quality, simply on the volume of writing that is out there.

The bottom line

Memoir comes with the marketing built in. If you have enough usable material to write a straight memoir, go with the memoir. You’ll start at the top of the debut writers’ pecking order.

You guys may, of course disagree! What would you tell Michael? Share in the comments!

 

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn.  Find more details and sign up here.

I have tools for writing novels in Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one –available from Amazon.My own novel, My Memories of a Future Life is now available. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

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