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Chrisla
07-18-2008, 09:13 AM
I have posted a question about this issue in another forum, but now realize it was the wrong place. Here's my problem:

I've written a family history/memoir that people tell me is a compelling story that needs to see publication. But it has problems.

It's the story of a family, and I'm just part of it. It's also a story about my mother, who stoically endured much hardship, most of it for the love of her children--a love she could express only through hard work. Married too young and bred to obedience, she found the courage to defy the men--the family decision-makers--only in defense of her children's welfare. But it's a story of my father, too, a big man with a big heart--a man who lost his way in a repaidly transitioning world, torn between the expectations of the wife he loved and the father he'd been taught to honor. And it's a story of my siblings, who worked too hard, had too little, lost their childhoods too soon, struggled too hard to find their place in an unfamiliar society, and died too young (I lost three of them before my 15th birthday.)

I've included the stories because they show the personalities and character of the people involved and in many instances, inject some much-needed humor. But, while they are certainly true, many cannot be written from my pov because I was not present when they occurred. Yet, since I'm telling the story and most of the book is entirely from my pov, how can I handle their stories?

In my manuscript, I've said "I grew up hearing most of the stories, but some came later, long-delayed "confessions," told from the safety of adulthood, and heard for the first time over cups of coffee at my mother's old kitchen table, or around a campfire at a family reunion."

Then, when I actually tell the stories, I introduce them as "these are the stories my mother told me," or "the boys' stories." But they are so long, I didn't use narrative to tell the stories. I set scenes, complete with dialogue, in order to "show, not tell," and used those scenes to help develop background.

Can I get away with this? If not, does anybody have any suggestions about how I can rewrite those chapters?

I'd appreciate any input on this. I've wracked my brain for weeks, and can find no way of doing this, other than the way I've handled it.

Ritergal
07-18-2008, 03:39 PM
Chrisla, I just finished reading Take Joy (http://snipurl.com/30nd0), by veteran author Jane Koven. Hidden within the depths of this rich little treasure is a description of the process of co-authoring the YA novel Armageddon Summer with Bruce Coville. They alternated first-person chapters between a girl and boy's POV (innovative enough in itself), but found there was lots of background info they could not convey that way. So they inserted "Limited Omniscient" interstitial chapters that include things like "an FBI report on the cult, the transcript of a conversation between a policeman and his homebase, two letters from the girl's mother to her husband who had refused to join the cult with them, and the like. Sometimes in the matter of point of view, you need to be inventive."

The whole book is full of rejoinders to take joy in your writing, to listen to the story and let it take its own shape, and to be inventive. Yes, there are rules. The story must make music in the reader's mind. You must have a beginning, middle and end, with lots of "whirligigs" in the middle. You must cover the bases with detail, without over dramatizing. But above all, you must let the story tell itself. It sounds as if you are doing that.

I haven't read any of Jane Yolen's fiction -- in fact I'd never heard of her, but the title of this book lit my heart as it leapt from the shelf into my hand. It sat on my shelf for over a year before I noticed it again and cracked the covers. Oh my! What rich chocolate for this writer's soul! It took me ages to read the tiny thing because I lingered so long over succulent sentences. I'm heading for the library's YA and children's sections to experience more of the ecstasy of her flowing phrases.

I hope this helps. I can't tell if your particular treatment works without actually reading the manuscript, but it sounds as if you are on a straight track.

Chrisla
07-18-2008, 09:32 PM
Thanks so much for your interest and for taking time to give me your thoughts. Alternating POVs would be a nice option, were any of the family members still living. I'm the only survivor with memories of this story.

The limited omniscient interstitial chapters sounds interesting, but from your description, it appears that they limited it to some form of documentation--and it was interstitial, which could be a problem for me.

Since this is a family story, much of the beginning is really my mother's and father's story. They ran away and married when she was 16. The marriage had not yet been consumated, but rather than having it annulled, her mother said "You've made your bed; now you'll have to lie in it," thus condemning my mother to a lifetime of unrelenting hard work, poverty and tragedy--particularly through the years of the Great Depression.

Add to that the world view of my paternal grandfather, that children had an obligation to work for and support their parents, mix in my mother's never-ending longing to be near her own family, several states away, and you have developed the beginnings of a peripatetic lifestyle.

All of that would normally be called backstory, leading into my own story. But there's so much of it, and so important in its own right, that I see no way of treating it simply as backstory. And it's chapters long, not interstices.

I think I'll stay with my method of simply labeling some of my chapters as "Stories my mother told me," or "The Boys' Stories," with a short paragraph leading into them. There's always the burden, too, of not breaking the momentum of the story, of author intrusion. I tried to do some of this in an explanatory prologue. But now I understand that prologues must stand apart from the story, and that editors don't want to see them.

I'm rambling--thinking through the problem, I suppose. You've given me food for thought, and I think I'll try to find Take Joy and read it. I like her advice to "let the story tell itself," but feel I'm too new to writing to be inventive by "breaking the rules."

Thanks again. I do appreciate any thoughts I can get on what, to me, is a thorny problem.

Shwebb
07-22-2008, 07:24 AM
There's so much the problem, these days--the rules that we feel that have been so recently broken have long ago, been breached. The publishing world seems to have implicitly been involved in the process of "creative license" within the memoir world. And is now facing the backlash of it.

I love the idea of your switching POV. I'm thinking that it would be quite well within the boundaries of memoir, actually. Firstly, people who read should exercise a bit of common sense and understand that these would be stories told to you--because after all, you aren't them--you're you. Secondly, a disclaimer at the beginning of the book should/would settle any folks who didn't quite get the first point.

However, these days I think publishers might be so wary of mis-labeling something as memoir they'd just about want to see documentation of every fact stated in one's manuscript.

I wanted to say that if your posting is any indication of your writing ability, write on!

:D

loosebricks
07-22-2008, 08:14 AM
I love the idea of your switching POV. I'm thinking that it would be quite well within the boundaries of memoir, actually. Firstly, people who read should exercise a bit of common sense and understand that these would be stories told to you--because after all, you aren't them--you're you. Secondly, a disclaimer at the beginning of the book should/would settle any folks who didn't quite get the first point.

However, these days I think publishers might be so wary of mis-labeling something as memoir they'd just about want to see documentation of every fact stated in one's manuscript.



I agree, there are plenty of books out there that do switch POV (the latest one I read was a novel, Mothsmoke, by Mohsin Hamid) and as long as you make which POV you're using at any given time obvious enough to the reader, it should work just fine, particularly since you mentioned it's about a family as opposed to one member of the family.

Once you get an agent and editor they'll let you know how they want to take care of the details. The most important thing is you write and write well!

Chrisla
07-22-2008, 10:23 AM
Thank you, Shwebb and Loosebricks. I realized, when I went back and read my original post, that I didn't mention what POV I used for the stories "they told me." I've used third person omniscient for those, primarily to avoid excessive head-hopping, since most of those stories involve more than one person. The rest of the book is written in first person. Even with that, I'm finding far too many instances of "she said," "she told me," etc., in my first person narrative.

Just for clarity, when you mention changing POVs, is this what you mean, or are you suggesting that it should be first person throughout, with the POV changing, prefaced by the "this is the story he/she/they told me?"

I've thought about that, telling the first part of the story from my mother's POV, and the last from mine, but then it wouldn't be a memoir, would it? And I'd feel decidedly uncomfortable getting into my mother's head now, when I had enough trouble trying to get there when I was growing up!

I certainly have documentation for the more dramatic events in the story, in the form of newspaper clippings, letters and photos. In fact, the book I printed for family included all of those, and I'm in the process now of stripping them out.

I appreciate your interest and your comments. I thought I had the hard part done when I created this massive book for family and had it printed. Then I came onto AW, after friends and family urged me to publish the book, and discovered how many errors I had made in writing it. Now I cringe when they tell me how good the book is. But, on the positive side, I am learning about my mistakes. I know what needs fixing; I just don't yet know how to make the repairs. But I'll learn.

I ordered Take Joy, and will also take a look at the one you mentioned. (I'm sorry; can't remember the name of it right now. It's late and I'm tired, but I'll take another look at your post, Loosebricks.

Again, my heartfelt thanks.

Ritergal
07-22-2008, 05:12 PM
Another book that switches POV is Nightshade, Susan Albert's latest China Bayles mystery. Before the book came out, Susan mentioned in a YahooGroup we both belong to that unlike previous volumes that are told strictly from China's POV, in this one she switched to China's husband's POV several times. When I first began reading, I was a little thrown that suddenly the text changed from first person to third, with no explanation. Then I remembered that YG announcement. I don't know what I would have thought if I hadn't already heard about it. Once I recognized the technique, I found it worked rather well.

So, yes, absolutely. Do use third person for those earlier stories.

Rules are made to be broken. The bottom line to me as a reader is, "Does this make sense? Is it easy to read and compelling?" if the answer is yes, I admire and innovative way of bringing that result about.

Anyway, with the publishing world in such a vortex of change, you may decide to use POD and get it out there yourself. My only hesitation about that would be the need to do way more personal promotion, but the difference in commission should way more than offset that.

I've been noodling a similar project for a couple of years. My matrilineal great-great-grandmother and her daughter are buried in Austin, less than two miles from my daughter's house. My grandmother, mother and I were all born in Texas, but Mother and I lived there for only months. My daughter was born in WA, and only lived in Texas when she married and moved there. Her daughters were both born in Austin. A seven generation circle of herstory is complete.

Without definite plans, my impulse is to use the technique you describe -- omniscient third for my foremothers, first person for myself, and probably only a brief mention of my daughter and her girls.

I think as I write those early stories, I'll tell them in third person from a first-person POV, so I can include some interpretation and my understanding. Does that make sense? A first person narration of third-person omniscient? I probably know less than you do of terminology, but hopefully you know what i mean.

Chrisla
07-23-2008, 01:27 AM
Anyway, with the publishing world in such a vortex of change, you may decide to use POD and get it out there yourself. My only hesitation about that would be the need to do way more personal promotion, but the difference in commission should way more than offset that.

I've been noodling a similar project for a couple of years. My matrilineal great-great-grandmother and her daughter are buried in Austin, less than two miles from my daughter's house. My grandmother, mother and I were all born in Texas, but Mother and I lived there for only months. My daughter was born in WA, and only lived in Texas when she married and moved there. Her daughters were both born in Austin. A seven generation circle of herstory is complete.

Without definite plans, my impulse is to use the technique you describe -- omniscient third for my foremothers, first person for myself, and probably only a brief mention of my daughter and her girls.

I think as I write those early stories, I'll tell them in third person from a first-person POV, so I can include some interpretation and my understanding. Does that make sense? A first person narration of third-person omniscient? I probably know less than you do of terminology, but hopefully you know what i mean.


I haven't yet published anything, so must confess I don't know anything about the publishing world's "vortex of change." Is this in reference to memoirs, as a result of the James Frey type of thing, or to publishing in general? I've sometimes thought of rewriting this book as fiction. It would be much easier, but I think it would lose some of its impact, too.

Your project sounds fascinating, especially if you have a lot of material about your ancestors. As far as the POV, my education is sadly lacking in that area. I understand first person, second person and third person. I am comfortable with third person omniscient and third person limited, but can't quite invision third person dramatic. But I think what you are saying is that you, as the writer, are narrating the stories, using the third person omniscient, so you can get into the thought processes of the characters.

I think that's much what I did in my family story. Then, in Jim McDonald's thread, "Writing with Uncle Jim," I read his take on it: "I personally dislike the third person omniscient--since it's easy to do badly. If you are using third omniscient, make sure that the smallest unit in any given person's head is the paragraph. Treat thoughts like dialog that way. And put up markers so the reader will know whose head you're in. Confusing the readers is a bad plan."

I think he's referring to "head hopping," and I found several instances where I'd done exactly that. So I'm trying to go back and rewrite those sections in third person limited. Sometimes it's tough to get it right, though. Otherwise, I wouldn't have started this thread. lol.

Thanks again for your interest and your thoughts. I appreciate them.

Manofcolours
07-23-2008, 08:09 AM
There's some great posts there but they are well over my head of how you tell stories, i am doing mine now of my life & family with the findings i found out from my own research & digging around then finally getting bits & pieces from the brothers that i talk to, 3 of them i don't talk to at all so i am lucky i have 3 that do want to talk with all the things that went on in my growing years.

Your story sounds better than mine, so go ahead & get it done before the stories a lost, your very lucky that you have already done a family book.

I have to do mine, in Nan said this & grandad did that, but i am trying to tell it like it was without to much big worded words, when we are young & learning lifes up & downs we talk as kids not adults , so when i iam talking in my stories, it is done as a kid speaking, but when as my stories get to teenage & adult years , i have learned so much that the stories are told as adults.

As i look through the other posts here i am getting a feel how to do my stories as they unfold as an adult. I have a long way to go before i can communicate like you expert scholars.

cheers GCF

Chrisla
07-23-2008, 08:47 PM
I'm uncomfortable with that "scholars" label! Most of what I know about writing, I've learned by doing, by studying writing books and these threads, not from any formal education in journalism or creative writing. And I often get off on the wrong track. For example, I posted a thread in "Uncle Jim's" writing lessons, and was reminded that the things I'm learnibg there don't apply to non-fiction--that in non-fiction, lots of narrative is expected, as long as it's interesting narrative.

Of course, much of what Jim teaches applies to all writing, so I'm still working my way diligently through that thread. But I wish somebody who is knowledgeable would tell me the "rules" of memoir writing. Maybe I'll post a thread and ask.

Chrisla
07-23-2008, 08:55 PM
I have to do mine, in Nan said this & grandad did that, but i am trying to tell it like it was without to much big worded words, when we are young & learning lifes up & downs we talk as kids not adults , so when i iam talking in my stories, it is done as a kid speaking, but when as my stories get to teenage & adult years , i have learned so much that the stories are told as adults.

I've I've read a couple of memoirs done that way, and found them to be very effective. One was Blackbird, a Childhood Lost and Found, by Jennifer Lauck. There was a sequel to it, and I can't remember the name of that one, but I'm sure it would be easy to find through Google. Lots of luck with your story.