Larry Cunningham: Edit Your Memoir for Maximum Reader Interest

Larry Cunningham
Guest article by Larry Cunningham

I am an obsessive editor. I will mark up the first few pages of a paperback book just for practice and question how the book ever got published. Effective and unrelenting editing turns mediocre writing into excellent writing.

First things first: Did you set the hook on the first page? That’s right—page one. While memoirs are not novels, you still want someone to read them. Begin with an interesting story that immediately draws the reader into wanting more. The worst way to begin: “I was born July 20, 1936, in Marshall, Missouri, the middle of three boys.” Better: "When I was growing up in Marshall, Missouri our family moved so often from one cheap rental house to another that my two brothers and I attended all of the town's four elementary schools."

Begin editing only after your memoir is written in at least outline form. Editing as you go can easily stop the creative juices.

Edit and Re-edit, Then Edit Again
If you are going to take money for writing, that makes you a professional. Permit no mistakes. Your quest is absolute perfection. Do not settle for anything mediocre. Lay the piece aside after the first edit. Come back a week later and do it again, then again until it is perfect. Read your work aloud and then have someone else read it to you. Did it sound as you intended? If not, rewrite.

Spend as much time on a page of prose as you would a poem. Make every word count—make every word the right word. Check for better words after you finish creating. Look for opportunities to use alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, etc. Upgrade your prose; polish imagery; use metaphor and simile. Can the reader see and smell and hear, touch and taste what you are attempting to relate?

Convert negatives to positives. Key on the words not and no, then figure out a way to write what is, rather than what is not. In other words, show, don’t tell.

Eliminate expletives. Expletives are not necessarily profanity, like the Nixon tapes (expletives deleted), but any word or phrase used merely to fatten a sentence such as there were, there are, there is, it is, it was, which are, and so forth.

When You Think You Are Finished, Cut Some More
Get rid of weak words. Either use stronger words or write around weak words. Was, had, had been, which, because, so, just, and, this, the, are examples of weak words.

Give your subject more than one level of depth. Add details, examples and highlights to enrich your stories. One highlighting method is dialogue, which keeps the momentum going. Dialogue should sound like you are in a room listening to your subject. Improve tag lines. He said, she said are probably better than any contrived words, except when the identity of the speaker is obvious and no tag is needed. He ejaculated, he spat, she urged harshly, she gasped, are tags the reader can do without. The dialogue should carry its own weight.

Use double spacing and a twelve-point font, preferably Times New Roman. Short sentences add energy. When editing, don’t add commas, add periods.

Fine tune. Keep chronology and characters straight.

Memoir writers are no different than other writers when it comes to good storytelling and grammar. Join a decent critique group—not a support group—to hone your skills.

Finally, when you think you have finished editing, cut the completed product by twenty percent.

Larry Cunningham is an essayist and an award-winning poet. He is president of the Springfield Writers’ Guild, Springfield, Missouri. Photo courtesy Larry Cunningham.

Your Comments Are Welcome
Let us know your experience with editing. Have you self-edited or asked a friend or a professional for help? In what ways did the results make you happy or upset? Click the comments link below.

Todd Parnell: Motivations are Key to Effective Memoir Writing

Todd Parnell
Drury University President Todd Parnell doesn’t write for money. He writes to enjoy, to honor his family’s legacy and to give back to the community; passionate motivations strongly evident in his three captivating family memoirs. Proceeds from two of the books go to nonprofits, providing them with more than $50,000 to date.

He wrote his books the old-fashioned way: with pen and pad.

Mom at War
Todd’s mother, Jean, became a war widow in 1943 when her first husband was killed in Sicily. She joined the American Red Cross to honor his memory and during 1944 and 1945 drove a two-ton truck across Germany giving doughnuts, coffee and comfort to our front-line troops.

“She never provided details of her experiences to me and my brother, Patrick,” Todd says.

Jean gave up her secrets more than fifty years after the war when she showed Todd a wooden German ammunition box full of her letters, photographs, diaries and other memorabilia. Materials included accounts of witnessing airplane dogfights, surviving a bombing of her quarters and strafing of her truck by enemy aircraft, suffering frostbite and of being at the Battle of the Bulge.

Todd turned the materials into Mom at War. He gave a copy to his parents, Jean and Ben, during a Mother’s Day lunch. Proceeds from book sales go to the Greater Ozarks Regional Chapter of the American Red Cross and to the Southwest Missouri Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

Postcards from Branson
Todd’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather grew up in Branson, Missouri. They were bankers who were leaders of progress and action. Branson also was where Todd and Patrick were raised, so it was natural for Todd to want to write about the area.

“This book was more difficult to organize than Mom at War,” Todd says. “Materials were not kept in a single box; they were in many boxes in a basement. My family kept every scrap of paper they touched, so the materials were a treasure-trove of documented memories.”

Where to start? An opening occurred when Todd’s parents invited him and Patrick on a cruise without their wives so they could spend some private time together. Todd quizzed his parents almost daily during the cruise on what they remembered about Branson. It was many years later before he returned to his notes and compared them with the photos, articles and other materials in the basement boxes, piecing together the stories that became this book.

“I’m proud of the stories of my kinfolks,” Todd says. “They’re not famous and nobody’s going to write those things for them. I wanted to do that. The book also lets my children know about our roots.”

He gave his parents a copy of Postcards from Branson, an emotional moment for everyone since by that time his father was in a skilled nursing home. His parents passed away a few years later. Proceeds from book sales go to Skaggs Regional Medical Center, Branson.

The Buffalo, Ben and Me
Todd framed this book around a twelve-day float trip on the Buffalo National River in Arkansas with his son Ben who was in the eighth grade and struggling with learning challenges.

“He was not performing at his potential and that made him resentful,” Todd says.

The wilderness adventure changed their lives and strengthened their love as Todd helped his son gain self-confidence and searched for his own identity as a father. They became more connected with every navigated rapid, every passage through massive limestone bluffs, every bass caught, and every glimpse of a deer, turkey, turtle and snake. There were lots of snakes.

Todd started writing about the trip as soon as they got home. “We both did a lot of growing and I wanted to make sure those memories didn’t slip away.”

Ben received professional counseling in high school that helped match his needs with learning resources. He went on to receive a master’s degree in biology with a focus on fisheries management. Today he works for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

More Books Coming?
Todd recently returned from an around-the-world trip for Drury University. He is organizing his notes into a spoof about the people he travelled with.

“I hope this will help us remember the trip in a fun way.”

Regardless of whether this becomes a book and whether there are future books, Todd plans to keep writing until things are so dim in his head he can’t think of any words.

Todd Parnell is an alumnus and adjunct professor of Drury University, Springfield, Missouri. He is a former bank president and a fifth generation banker. His interests include being a board member of the Missouri Clean Water Commission and a trustee of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

Photo courtesy Drury University.

Candy Simonson: Preserving Memories in Power Point

Candy Simonson
Guest article by Candy Simonson  

My father was a great storyteller and he had a grand heritage to share. His grandfather was one of the first settlers in South Dakota, founding Woodland township. The Woodland family and the Bailey family travelled in covered wagons to find the ideal spot on which to settle. I was told how they built their homes of sod, had contacts with the local Sioux, and braved cold South Dakota winter blizzards. Tales were told of the “Jim & Jane” trees, a marker for a favorite picnic and fishing spot on the lake named after his friend. Bailey’s Lake is now a state park and a refuge for waterfowl and wildlife in northeast South Dakota. I heard that my great-grandfather was a postmaster who walked thirty miles over two days across the prairie to retrieve mail.

Headed for the Dakotas.
The stories intrigued me as a young girl and when I inherited a box of pictures in early adulthood I discovered a treasure trove of history and adventure. The stories had really been true! The covered wagons, the Jim & Jane trees, the soddy; and somehow, there were pictures of them all. How? I couldn’t say. Surely not many families could afford the tintype photos; yet, here were dozens of them. I discovered my ancestors built up the small town creating dress shops, barbershops and optometry. Not only did I find the pictures to be amazing; many of them had the names and dates included. Then I found a journal. It completed Dad’s stories.

Grandpa Woodland's sod
shanty, known as a soddy.

There is a historian in every family preserving memories. I decided it was up to me to write it. I wanted to pass this information to my grandchildren, for how would they know their great-great-great grandfather sailed by boat from England to the U.S. when he was fourteen years old and then served his country during the Civil War? Wouldn’t they love to know he was the first constable in a little town called Clark in the early 1800s?

Land claims on the prairie.

Armed with information and photos, I decided to put together a visual account, illustrating the stories with the pictures. First the story had to be written in chronological order from one generation to the next, starting with my great grandfather. Then pictures were sorted and scanned into jpeg format to be inserted into my Word document. From there, it was a matter of placing the story into a Power Point presentation. The present product is 135 slides with over 100 photos. It includes poems written by family, "secret" (not any more) family recipes, and the family tree. The time covers 1835 to 1976, a span of four generations of the Woodland family in South Dakota.

It’s an ongoing story that needs to keep going. Perhaps someday it should become a book. For now, it’s simply our family’s treasure of memories to keep and cherish.

Candy Simonson of Strafford, Missouri is an Internet Technician and she writes articles for family magazines. Her articles include topics on teaching children, preparing Christian school lessons, and leading small-group discussions. She has written a novel for youth and is searching for a publisher.

Photos courtesy Candy Simonson.

Linda Austin: Cherry Blossom Memories

Linda Austin
This week I exchanged posts with Linda Austin. Read my article on her blog, moonbridgeblog.blogspot.com.

My mother loved to tell stories of her childhood in pre-World War II Japan – such a different era and culture from the white-bread Midwest of the sixties I grew up in. In my teen years I realized I should capture those stories somehow, but it took a great many years and the prodding of a family friend to get the project going.

Over a period of ten years, with me for the most part living far away from her, I worked on and off interviewing my mother, writing and editing. My mom often resisted me, saying, “My life was bad, nobody wants to hear about it.” I told her people liked to hear how others survived bad times. She would get so annoyed at my thirst for details – “who would want to know that?” I told her I wanted to know and her grandchildren would, too. Many times we laughed together, and sometimes we cried. I saw how her personality reflected hurts she had suffered and I wished I had known of them earlier so I could have had more patience and understanding. For the first time I heard the stories of how she lived through WWII, running for bomb shelters and diving under tea bushes to avoid getting shot by swooping warplanes.

Finally, ignoring my kids and housework for three months, I pushed hard to finish the book in time for the sixtieth anniversary of the end of WWII. By this time I had moved my aging mother to St. Louis to be near me and noticed her memory was failing. At the end of August 2005, I placed the book of her early life into her hands in time for her eightieth birthday. She was astounded by how well it turned out. Our whole family was thrilled. My mother’s friends and even strangers told us how fascinating her book was.

My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a couple of years later. The stories in her book became a comfort to her. The present was a confusion, yesterday never was, the distant past was what she remembered. Now I am the one who reminds her of the stories, and we sing her childhood songs together as I tuck her in bed.

Linda Austin is co-author with her mother of Cherry Blossoms in Twilight: Memories of a Japanese Girl. With her blog, Linda encourages others to write their stories. She also ghostwrites life stories and creates edited DVDs of interviews via Moonbridge Publications.

Linda lives in St. Louis, Missouri. She can be reached at moonbridgeblog.blogspot.com and moonbridgebooks.com.

Photo courtesy Linda Austin.