Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 12 of 12: Ernest Hemingway Did It 39 Times

Ernest Hemingway
12. Edit, edit, edit

How-to author and memoir-writing coach Sharon Lippincott: “Write like nobody will ever read it. Edit like the whole world will.”

Blogger Derbhile Dromey: "Good editing is a bit like gardening. You cut back the dead wood to allow the flowers to bloom."

Author Jeff Goins: "It’s never beautiful at the outset. Before your work can reach its potential, it will first have to be bad."

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) said he rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times, “To get the words right.”

These experts are saying simple proofreading is not enough. Your computer’s spellchecker will find some spelling and grammar errors—not all of which you will agree are errors—but it will not help find your emotional story. You will have to reread your manuscript several times and rewrite sections several times in order to get satisfying results your audience will want to read. 

Profile of a book editor
Long ago in a galaxy far away, staff book editors were an essential part of traditional publishing at the big publishing houses. Their job was to take a manuscript with potential and polish it into a sales-ready product. Not anymore. With the explosion of self-publishing and print-on-demand vendors anyone without a lick of sense can become a published author. Publishers are more discriminating in what they will consider. Authors no longer can expect publishers to clean-up their manuscripts. In order to get past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing, authors have to have more than a great story; they must submit manuscripts that need little or no fixing.

A professional book editor may:
  1. Check for spelling and grammar errors.
  2. Spot conflicting sections.
  3. Identify sections needing improved flow and feel of the story.
  4. Flag facts that need checking. 
  5. Prepare an index.
  6. Design the interior including layout, font and text size.
  7. Select illustrations.
  8. Secure permissions for using material from other sources.
Some of these require individual expertise and teams of editors may work on the process. With few exceptions you are expected to do these tasks, or see they get done, before you submit your manuscript. 

How to find an editor
Ask your librarian for the name and contact person of a writers’ group near you. One or more professional editors may be members of the group. Ask for credentials and references.

Talk with the head of the English department at a college or university in your area. Some institutions have literary publishing divisions whose staff may be available for outside editing work, or they could recommend a contractor with whom they have had success. If a student or college employee is suggested be sure their skills and results can be proven.

Search the web for freelance editors. Talk with them and get references of satisfied and unsatisfied customers.

Galleycat lists Best Book Editors on Twitter, with links to and comments from the editors.

A directory of professional associations for editors is at Editors Only.

Editing fees vary with skills and experiences of editors and the amount of work they do. Some charge by the project, page, or hour. The Editorial Freelancers Association lists common editorial rates.

Photo courtesy

What solutions have you found work best for your editing issues?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 11 of 12: How to Know Whether You Are on the Right Track

The Reading Lesson
11. Ask a trusted friend to read your work and make suggestions.

Let’s say you finished writing your lifestory, or even several chapters, and you’re feeling pretty good about it. Your stories are interesting, with lead sentences that grab a reader’s attention. You ran the spelling and grammar check on your computer and all looks well. While you may not be ready to publish with a traditional big-name company, you are ready for the next step. What is the next step?
Defining the term
Many professional writers will not agree with what I propose: Get feedback from a trusted friend. You likely wrote your lifestory for family and friends and not to become a best-selling author. You may be planning to take your manuscript to a local quick-print store and have it bound in spiral-notebook form on eight-and-one-half-by-eleven sheets, add a clear plastic cover for protection, and buy a dozen printed copies. Fine to do, but you also should do the best you can so your family and friends will not label you a careless, know-nothing amateur (in their minds, though they might not say that to your face).    

The key is trusted friend—not your spouse, your children, your grandmother, or your best buddy from high school, college, work, or church because they won’t tell you the truth. They will pat you on the back and say how impressed they are you wrote a great book.

The trusted friend I recommend is someone with knowledge of writing. This could be an English or writing teacher, a published author, a person who makes a living editing a magazine or newspaper, or a member of a local writing group who is experienced at giving feedback; someone who will do the job as a special favor at no charge. At this point you are not seeking perfection; you are looking for impressions. Ask your friend how he/she feels about your stories. Do the stories make sense? Does the narrative flow evenly? Are the events in chronological order (unless you planned them to be out of order). Do not ask your friend to proofread or edit your manuscript; those are steps that will come later. You are looking only for friendly feedback; simple suggestions on how your manuscript could be improved.

How to do it
Encourage your friend to comment along these lines:

“Seems to me this chapter would fit better earlier in the book.”

“I think some dialogue would add interest to this section.”

“You’ve told this story three times. How about thinking of other ways to include the same information?”

“Are you comfortable revealing details of this relationship?”

After Dorsey Levell and I reviewed our manuscript for Dumb Luck or Divine Guidance we asked four people to look it over, none of whom was a professional writer/editor. Then we hired a professional to proofread and edit.

While you should review your own work, the challenge is you are so close to the writing and to the value of stories that influenced you that you are likely to miss the obvious and nuance of form and clarity.

Check with your librarian for the name and contact of a writers’ group near you. You probably can attend several times without joining and I encourage you to join. Like-spirits can be a big help. Many writers’ groups have critique sessions and some have mentoring programs, both for free.

Fantasy author Elizabeth May has suggestions that apply equally well to lifestory writing. Freelance writer Karen Cioffi has excellent tips for self-editing, after which she says you should have your manuscript professionally edited.

More on editing in my last post in this series next week.

Painting: The Reading Lesson, Knut Ekvall (1843-1912). Creative Commons.

What was your experience when you asked a trusted friend to read your lifestory?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 10 of 12: How do I Write about the Hurts?

Pattie Mallette
10: Give yourself permission to write about painful memories.

I have no nasty secrets that, if revealed on the front page of a newspaper, would bring great pain to my wife, my children, my friends, or me. Embarrassment perhaps, but not pain.

I’m not a therapist, licensed or self-proclaimed. Therefore, I can’t speak from personal experience. But I have learned from students, clients, friends, and professionals that writing a lifestory can be healing. If you are haunted by memories and secrets which have become burdens to your happiness, then writing your stories can bring release from your haunts.

Claim your experiences
“Secrets maintain a great power over us, and we are diminished by them,” says Linda Joy Myers, therapist and author who founded the National Association of Memoir Writers. She says to release yourself from the past you must  claim your own truths. “Your story is about you—told from your point of view. Your experiences belong to you, and are unique to you, and you have a right to claim them, even if others disagree.”

Author Jeff Goins says when we write about the painful parts it helps heal us, helps heal others, and helps heal the world. “Don’t avoid painful writing,” he says. “Don’t procrastinate sharing your scars. Take an honest look inward and begin today. It may be the most courageous thing you’ve ever done.”

In her memoir Nowhere but Up, Pattie Mallette tells of her alcoholic and abusive father, her drinking and drugs starting at age fourteen, her attempted suicide, being sexually molested so many times she thought it was normal to feel dirty and unloved, giving birth to an out-of-wedlock son and raising him in low-income housing. A neighbor helped with babysitting so she could get her high school diploma. And she found hope in Christianity, even though her faith is a bit shaky at times. Not familiar with the name Pattie Mallette? This should help: The full name of her memoir is Nowhere but Up: The Story of Justin Bieber’s Mom. Bieber is now eighteen, her age when she gave birth to him.

"Writing the book was part of my healing process," she told an interviewer. “There are parts that are still painful to go over."

Don't censor yourself
Write the painful parts of your life. Don’t try to get it right the first time, just write. Don’t censor yourself as you go along or you will end up talking yourself out of writing about the hurts. You can decide later whether to edit or include them.

Caution: Writing about your pain in itself is not a substitute for the guidance of a therapist or other professional, including a support group. Memoirist Sue William Silverman was in therapy much of her adult life, the result of sexual abuse by her father when she was a child. Her therapist repeatedly advised her to write about her experiences, but she could not until her parents died.

You have options. One, keep the painful memories locked inside so as not to hurt others and keep hurting yourself. Two, reveal and risk further pain to those you love who might think less of you or take their love from you. Three, write from the perspective of love and forgiveness rather than a victim; you will get through it, you will better understand who you are, and you will have greater respect for yourself.

Photo courtesy Revell Books.

What methods have you used to write your painful memories?

Tips on Writing Your Lifestory, 9 of 12: Dialogue--Must You Remember Like Marilu Henner?

Marilu Henner
9. Use dialogue to break up narrative and give authenticity to your stories.

Actress, author, health and beauty adviser Marilu Henner is among a handful of people in the world known to have superior autobiographical memory. She can recall the correct days of the week for holidays in just about any year of her life, what she had for dinner ten years ago, and the date and circumstances of each time she met someone.

Russian journalist Solomon Veniaminovich Shereshevsky (1886–1958) could hear a speech once and recite it word for word.

Memory expert Hideaki Tomoyori holds the world record for memorizing 40,000 digits of pi.

Stage actors memorize long lines of dialogue by associating key words, sentences, sounds, and images.

But how do lifestory writers remember exact words of conversations years after events? Some reviewers criticized Mary Karr for pages of dialogue in her memoir The Liars’ Club, saying they could not tell whether she was remembering or lying.

The whole truth
Truth is, lifestory writers don’t remember exactly. They write the flavor or tenor of conversations that give the results they remember. More important than remembering exactly is remembering the truths and meanings of events.

Consider the Bible, which is top-of-the-food-chain for lifestory writing. Just about everything in the Bible was stories told from generation to generation before it was written. No video cameras, digital voice recorders, or journalists were on hand when events occurred. After the stories were first written they were copied and recopied many times in different languages before a committee assembled them into what we know as the Bible. Influence of the Holy Spirit to the contrary notwithstanding (politicians say that a lot), a friend of mine looks at that scenario this way, “I don’t know whether everything in the Bible happened the way it was written, but I believe it’s true.”

When writing your lifestory get as close as you can to the actual dialogue, but don’t be concerned if you can’t remember exactly. The results of your conversations, your feelings, what you did and learned are much more valuable than exactly.

Simple exercises
Kendra Bonnett and Matilda Butler, authors of Rosie’s Daughters, suggest practicing your listening skills as a technique for improving your written dialogue: Go to a public place, listen to people talking, and make notes. Think about the meaning of the conversation, not the words, and write a commentary about the conversation.

Creative writing consultant Nancy Strauss: “Writing effective dialogue is a delicate art. You need to sound authentic, capture each character's voice. And you need to cut it at the right moments.” Although you I and often may say please, thank you, uh, I know, yeah, appreciate it, and other trite words and phrases, when written they can make dialogue cluttered and contrived. Strauss lists eight exercises to practice writing dialogue.

Most real-life conversations are boring. Your objective for dialogue in your lifestory is more than accurate quotes. It is relevant dialogue that tells readers important things about persons and story and that keeps readers engaged. If it doesn’t do that, then rewrite until it does.

Photo courtesy Jeff Katz .

What is your toughest challenge in crafting relevant dialogue?