Taking Memoir Writing to the Next Level

For some time now, I’ve been feeling that I’d love to give more in-depth writing workshops. I have given such writing workshops in the past, but I want to make it more of a feature of my work. I want to take a group of enthusiastic writers to the next level. Just over two weeks ago, with the help of just such a group of enthusiastic writers, I achieved that ambition. I gave a memoir-writing workshop which gave the writers the space to create a full-length story and get feedback on it within a few hours. The writers created their magic in this building.

 

Edmund Rice Heritage Centre
The Edmund Rice Heritage Centre, where these stories were created.

 

This story would explore the role of point of view in shaping stories. In other words, the point of view you choose to tell the story from shapes the atmosphere of the story, and changes your view of the characters in it. The writers would tell the story of a small but significant injustice that they experienced when they were young.

We all have them. The time we were promised sweets but never got them. Or we saved up to buy something, only to find that the shopkeeper had sold it on. As a twist, the writers would tell the story from the viewpoint of the character who committed this injustice.

Building the Story

The writers started by brainstorming the small injustices they’d experienced. They came up with a list of three, and then whittled that down to one. They then took the time to get to know the person who committed the injustice by doing a character sketch. This is a profile of a character, where you give details like their name, age, location, family, and secrets about them that no-one else knows, The writers would be aware of some of the details, but could use their imaginations to fill in the gaps.

Every story needs a structure. This story would follow that timeless template: the three-act structure, with a beginning, middle and end. I devised a set of questions based on the three-act structure. Answering these questions would help them gather the facts of the story and put them in order. Once they’d answered those questions, they could then flesh out the facts to make a full-length story.

The Finished Product

The writers ended up with remarkably accomplished first drafts, well structured, with rounded, sympathetic characters. Some of them had not actually written before, but rose to the challenge beautifully. They were also generous in giving feedback to each other. Most of all, they found that they gained a new perspective on events in their lives, and were able to empathise with their former adversaries.

Do you have a small but significant injustice from your childhood that you could mine for stories? Try writing about it from the viewpoint of the other person. You may be surprised at the results.

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My Adventures in Writing Great Content

As we move towards the end of the year, we start to think about the highs and lows that make up our year. For me, one of the professional highs has been my collaboration with a marketing company called How Great Marketing Works. I’m reviewing their marketing programme with a series of blog posts. And I’ve also created a series of posts about how to write great content, called How to Write Great Content.

Strategic Selling

How Great Marketing Works has been created by Finola Howard, whose strategic approach to marketing has shaped my own content-writing strategy. Her whole philosophy is that before you can promote your business, you have to ask yourself some serious questions. You can then use the answers to these questions to help you create a story for your business, and you can then sell to people by telling.

For arty types like me, and I’m sensing many of you who read this blog also fit into this category, the idea of selling makes us really uncomfortable. The How Great Marketing Works approach takes the sting out of selling. If you think of selling in terms of telling a story rather than relentless promotion, it takes the pressure off. And it helps you recognise that you have something valuable to offer, and to find people who will appreciate your creativity and the value of your work.

I created the Five Ws series to help prospective and current users of the How Great Marketing Works programme sell by telling. It’s a series of four blog posts showing people how to write great content. It centres on five central questions we must ask ourselves if we want to write successful content. As these questions all begin with W, I call them the five Ws.

Great Content Image
The five Ws of great content. Image sourced by Finola Howard.

Why: the reason you do what you do in the first place. Remembering this will keep you motivated when your spirits are flagging.

What: We may think we know what we do, but it’s good to pin it down. Think of what you do in terms of how it benefits the people who will buy from you. What is brilliant about your books?

Who: Think of the people who will buy your books. Draw up a profile of them: how old they are, what they like to do in their spare time, what books or articles they like to read.

Where: Identify the best places to reach those people, through social media, websites or offline outlets.

When: How often will you write content? Scheduling your content will ensure you write it consistently and that it won’t fall down the list of priorities.

I then applied the five Ws to the series of four posts. Two of them are available from How Great Marketing Works, and I’ve linked to those. And you can look forward to the other two in the coming weeks.

How to Build a Great Content Writing Strategy: This was an introduction post outlining the five Ws and how to apply them to any content you write.

How to Write Great Media Content: This post shows you how to use the five Ws to create newsworthy press releases that will make journalists sit up and take notice.

How to Write Great Content for Your Website: This post shows you how to fit the five Ws to different pages on your website, so you can get your message across in your web content.

How to Write Blogs That People Will Want to Read: In this post, you’ll use the five Ws to create interesting web content and ensure it reaches the right people at the right time.

I’m delighted Finola Howard has given me this opportunity to write these blog posts. I’ll be clear that this is a professional arrangement, but on a personal level, I’ve found it beneficial. It’s helped me hone my content writing and selling bills, and also more aware of how I run my business. It’s helped me become more professional in my approach to my work. 

Journey Through the Senses Writing Workshop

Recently, I gave one of my favourite types of creative writing workshop, for one of my favourite organisations. The workshop was my Journey Through the Senses beginners’ workshop. And the organisation was Waterford Libraries. I gave the workshop in one of their busiest libraries, in Ardkeen.

Objects of Affection

This workshop uses the senses to trigger emotions and memories, which in turn can lead to ideas for stories. It’s a nice gentle introduction to writing for beginners. After some icebreakers, I distributed some quirky objects I’ve picked up along my travels: a ladybird whose wings open to reveal a watch, a jade stone, a wooden perfume bottle from Bulgaria.

The participants then wrote the life stories of these objects.  They used the feel and the look of the objects to help them imagine what those lives might have been, what adventures they had and how they came to be there. Some people didn’t like the objects they were given, but I told them that sensations you don’t like can provide just as much inspiration for writing as beautiful ones. The important thing is to evoke a strong reaction.

A Taste of Oranges

We then moved on to one of my favourite exercises, which I’ve written about on this blog before, A Taste of Oranges. Oranges challenge all five of the senses, and people have to let go of their inhibitions about eating such a messy fruit in front of other people. The participants had to describe the oranges using all five of their senses (this orange looks/this orange feels). Eating the orange was an optional extra.

Oranges
Oranges work all of a writer’s senses.

Once the senses are triggered, I like to expand the activity. After they’d worked their senses with the oranges, I asked the participants to write about a meal that was memorable for a particular reason, which triggered some hilarious and poignant tales.

Musical Moments

I decided to do this activity on a whim, as I don’t normally do it, even though music is integral to my own writing practise. When you do activities, you don’t know which ones will work out. The other activities had gone smoothly, but I was still waiting for that ‘foom’ moment when the group takes off. It came with this activity.

I played a piece of music (Apache by The Shadows), and the participants had to write the names of a person, a colour and a place that the music made them think of. They then wove those three words into a short story. The resulting stories took us on voyages to different parts of the world, and prompted lots of lively reminiscences.

How do you incorporate the senses in your writing? Are you drawn to beautiful sensations, or to more troubling ones? If you’re a workshop facilitator, do you do activities based on the senses?

Three Ways to Share Your Writing with the World

When we think of sharing our writing with the wider world, we think in terms of traditional publishing or self-publishing. But we need to think beyond these two options. Whether you choose mainstream or independent publishing, the process is punishing, and this can put off many people who are otherwise very talented, enthusiastic writers. Even if you do succeed, with those options, you then have to fight for your audience.

But any writer worth their salt wants to write for others, not just themselves. And I’ve become increasingly convinced that you don’t need to publish to find an audience for your writing. You can find an audience beyond the cosy circles of your friends, family, writer buddies, writing groups or creative writing workshop. You’ll know you’ve arrived when a total stranger reacts to your writing. And if you’re inventive, you’ll find ways to reach them.

Here are three ways of finding an audience and gaining street cred as a writer, on your own terms.

Perform Your Writing

If you’re a writer with a bit of an extrovert streak, you could try performing your writing at an open mic night or a spoken word event. At open mic nights, writing is performed along with music and comedy sketches, whereas at a spoken word event, it’s just writing. These kinds of performance events lend themselves well to poetry, but you could write prose that’s designed to be performed too.

Reading at Modwordsfest - Derek Flynn
I performed my writing at a recent spoken word festival called Modwordsfest. Photo Credit: Derek Flynn

 

Submit to Journals

There are lots of altruistic literary types who found journals that showcase original new writing. This is particularly useful for poets and short-story writers, as it’s hard to attract the attention of a publisher for a collection of short stories or poe from a debut author. Many of these journals are prestigious, with high submission standards, so being featured in them gives you great kudos.

Broadcast Your Writing 

Many people don’t realise that broadcasting is seen as a form of publication, and radio programmes are eager to accept great writing that will sound good over the airwaves. Some radio programmes accept stories and poems from writers, particularly community radio stations and stations with a public service remit. You can also enter competitions to have your story or play published, and you may even win a prize!

Have you shared your writing in this way? Are there any ways in which you share your writing?

Why It’s Important to Get Feedback for your Content

Last week, I got feedback from a client. Nothing new about that, you might think. I certainly get regular feedback from workshop participants and people I help with writing their books. But I don’t tend to get it from business clients. Often, they’re so busy that they don’t have time to properly read through what’s been written. They may even have practically forgotten that they asked you to write content. They just send you payment.

Of course, payment is welcome, but getting feedback reassures me that the content I’ve delivered meets their needs. Business clients think in terms of results, so it’s important for me to explain to them that the content-creation process involves several drafts and a bit of back and forth between client and content creator.

copywriting image
Take time to give feedback to your copywriter.

 

The client who gave me the feedback instinctively understood that. He’s a graphic and web designer, so he has a similar creative process. He took the time to give me detailed feedback on the first draft of some content I’d written for a tourism website he was developing. The process was a little squirm-inducing; it’s hard to fight the urge to defend your work. But I also found it hugely beneficial. Here’s why.

I discovered what I was doing right.

When delivering feedback, it’s best to begin with the good stuff. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. If you know which content works for your client, you can keep delivering it. It was good to know that most of what I had written was in line with the client wanted, so I was on the right track.

I was able to deliver the client’s message more accurately.

The client wanted me to emphasise the facilities and amenities that were available to people visiting this tourist attraction. There is a lot of history and heritage in the area, but I held back on writing about it for fear of sounding too Googlish. The client supplied me with resources I could use to get more of a feel for the area and write about it in a more vivid way. The feedback enabled me to get the client’s core message across more effectively.

I got the tone right.

Getting the tone of a company right takes a little time, because you need to become familiar with their philosophy and how they operate. I believe I had achieved a warm, welcoming tone, but the client felt I was still erring on the side of sales talk, so I used their feedback to create more of an impression of warmth and cosiness, and of a special experience.

Have you ever received feedback that you found beneficial? How was it delivered to you? And how did it improve the standard of your work overall?

Why Writing Is Like The Salmon Season

When salmon are breeding, they must travel thousands of miles to their breeding grounds in the Sargasso Sea. The journey is arduous, and along the way, thousands of salmon fall away. Only the strongest make it to the Sargasso Sea.

Salmon Season
Writing a book is like the salmon’s journey to the Sargasso Sea, long and brutal.

The process of becoming a published writer is a lot like that. It’s a long process and it can be brutal, and there are a lot of hurdles to be jumped.

First, you have to actually start the book. How often have you been at social gatherings and heard people say, ‘I’d love to write a book?’ For many people, the desire to write a book has never gone beyond idle conversation. So if you commit to putting pen to paper, you’re already ahead of the game.

But the writing of the book can be overwhelming for people. It’s easy to get bogged down in your story, with its many plot twists and its cast of character. And some people never make it out of that maze. They abandon their book halfway through.

When you do finish your book, it’s quite right that you should congratulate yourself. But your journey is not over yet. Now it’s time to find an audience for your book. And the main way to achieve it is through publishing. Whether you self-publish or look for a traditional publisher, publishing is tough.

If you self-publish, all the work of a publisher falls to you – publishing, cover design, editing, printing and promotion. And finding a traditional publisher can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. This is the stage that really separates the minnows from the big fish. It involves at least as much work as the actual writing of the book, if not more. If you get through it, the rewards can be great.

But your work isn’t over. If you really want to establish yourself as a writer, you have to make the journey again and again. Each book will be a new journey, but if you have the inventiveness to keep coming up with new ideas and the faith to act on them, you’ll truly establish yourself as an author – and you may even make a living from it.

So what are the qualities that will get you through these hurdles to the Sargasso Sea that is the life of a published author? I believe there is a holy trinity of qualities – talent, hunger and discipline. If you display those qualities, they’ll help you over those hurdles. And in the end, it’s what you want that matters. Maybe the simple writing of the book is enough for you. Or maybe your writing ambitions simply lie elsewhere.

Whatever route you choose to reach the Sargasso Sea of publishing, good luck. If you have reached it, what qualities or resources helped you on your journey?

Can Books Be Introverted?

Have you ever read a book where all the ingredients are in place, but the story fails to ignite? I’m sure the experience will be familiar to many of you. I experienced it recently with a book that came highly commended from many quarters. But rather than simply shrug it off as a dull reading experience, I fell to pondering on what qualities had made the book dull for me.

And I concluded that the book was too introverted for me.

I once heard the acclaimed author Mary Costello talk about writing in an introverted style. She is an introvert herself, and considers loneliness to be a natural state for her human being. This leaked into her writing, into the small, delicate stories she creates.

MaryCostello
Mary Costello: an introverted writer.

I’ve written before about that special quality I call “the crackle,” an extra ingredient of passion or excitement that makes a book to life. Now I think of it, the crackle is a quality associated with extroversion: noisy stories that aren’t afraid to put themselves out there.

You could argue that it’s the writer who’s introverted, not the stories. But I do think some stories give you the chance to experience the world from the viewpoint of an introvert, with inspiration drawn from within.

Here’s my take on what makes a story introvert or extrovert?

Characters

Extroverted stories tend to have a large cast of characters who talk a lot, so there’s lots of dialogue. Extroverts like a crowd, so there always plenty of colourful types to get to know when you’re reading the stories. Introverted stories will only have one or two central characters, and there’s less dialogue. Instead, you’re more likely to get an insight into their thoughts.

Theme

Even when a story deals with the everyday, that can be a microcosm of bigger themes. But an extrovert writer is more likely to sweep you up in an epic tale that tackles themes like love and death on a grand scale, with lots of battles and passionate clinches. In an introverted story, the action could be concentrated on one room, with the theme gradually revealed through the character’s actions and inner dialogue.

Language

Extrovert writers are more likely to write with bold brush strokes, because they want their words to be noticed. Introvert writers use more delicate strokes to paint subtle portraits. Just as introverts in real life like to think things out, you’ll have to work a little harder to figure out what the author is trying to say. This

Do you think stories can have introvert or extrovert qualities? Can you think of examples?