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View Full Version : What are the Rules for Life Story Writing?



Chrisla
07-23-2008, 09:06 PM
I love "Uncle Jim's" writing thread in the Novels section, but some of the rules for fiction don't apply to non-fiction. For example, "information dumping" is something to avoid in fiction, but expected in non-fiction.

So what are the rules for non-fiction? What are the differences, especially for book-length life stories?


I'm writing a book about a family. Is it all right to recreate conversations? Obviously, you cannot remember an exact conversation, but if you stay true to the spirit of the story and the personality and intent of the character and scene, is this allowable?

Can you recreate scenes from the past that way, rather than using narrative? For example, if your parents told you about their early years together, can you recreate those events as scenes, or must you tell it in narrative form?

What about switching POV's? This is done all the time in fiction, but can it be done in non-fiction memoirs, writing part of it in first person and part of it in third omniescent?

I'd be interested in some guidance from those who are knowledgeable in this field.

Thanks.

Memoirista
08-04-2008, 09:57 AM
I love "Uncle Jim's" writing thread in the Novels section, but some of the rules for fiction don't apply to non-fiction. For example, "information dumping" is something to avoid in fiction, but expected in non-fiction.
Not in memoir, necessarily. Well, OK, if you're Frank McCourt, but he intersperses information dumping with scenes in the historical present where the persons and viewpoints are very immediate, and the information recedes to make way for the characters. Not quite fiction, but certainly not the non-fiction infodump of a book on all that goes into planning and carrying out an African safari.


So what are the rules for non-fiction? What are the differences, especially for book-length life stories? Best "rule" I can think of is to think of your potential reader/buyer using Amazon's Search Inside This Book feature to check out the beginning of your book. Next is to read two books on the craft of fiction: James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure and Renni Browne & Dave King's Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Some things you'll know to ignore, but some things, like dialogue structure, aren't covered in any handbook on non-fiction writing. Books on memoir writing, as far as I've read so far, don't cut it either.

I'm writing a book about a family. Is it all right to recreate conversations? Obviously, you cannot remember an exact conversation, but if you stay true to the spirit of the story and the personality and intent of the character and scene, is this allowable?Some would say it's necessary. In fiction, dialogue shows character emotions. In fact-mode, you'd have to be walking around with a tape recorder, real or the kind that replays everything in your head, to have any hope that dialogue is factual.

Get past the slow and distant first three pages of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, and see how he handles the family story, dialogue, scene, and the interplay of generations.

Can you recreate scenes from the past that way, rather than using narrative? For example, if your parents told you about their early years together, can you recreate those events as scenes, or must you tell it in narrative form?"Can you recreate scenes from the past that way?" Yes, of course, you have to. Memoir is not simply narrative; it is also story. You are telling a story, with all the arts of a storyteller, except your voice is a voice that is telling a real thing.


What about switching POV's? This is done all the time in fiction, but can it be done in non-fiction memoirs, writing part of it in first person and part of it in third omniescent?Ah, it begins to sound to me like you know what you want to do, and are asking for permission in advance to do it.
Actually, as I'm learning, you switch POV's in first person, by switching between varieties of distance. There's the immediacy of the historical present, telling it as if it's happening right this minute. Then there's a bit of description, and then perhaps some dialogue, all to develop a scene. First person narrator (FPN) is omniscient about anything that's happened to FPN, and FPN is the person who owns the story. If you feel you need to switch to third person omniscient, are you dodging a too-intense memory? Could you show, rather than tell? These are things, I think, that make for a readable memoir.

I'd be interested in some guidance from those who are knowledgeable in this field. I didn't see this coming; my knowledge comes from being about eleven months further along than you are.
Read memoir, figure out what you don't like about any of them, and write a better one.

Thanks. You're welcome.

Chrisla
08-04-2008, 11:48 PM
Ah, it begins to sound to me like you know what you want to do, and are asking for permission in advance to do it.
Actually, as I'm learning, you switch POV's in first person, by switching between varieties of distance. There's the immediacy of the historical present, telling it as if it's happening right this minute. Then there's a bit of description, and then perhaps some dialogue, all to develop a scene. First person narrator (FPN) is omniscient about anything that's happened to FPN, and FPN is the person who owns the story. If you feel you need to switch to third person omniscient, are you dodging a too-intense memory? Could you show, rather than tell? These are things, I think, that make for a readable memoir.

First of all, thank you for responding. I posted this so long ago that I thought I'd commited a faux-pas of some kind, and being so informed by the deathly silence. . .

What I didn't say is that I've already written this book for family, complete with old photographs, documents, the works. I had it printed in hardcover with a lovely cover that fit the title. I'm still getting orders for the book from distant cousins and friends, though the book is not about their own family. They keep telling me it's a story that MUST be published. Easy for them to say. LOL

I've stripped out the photos and documents and am in the process of stripping out all the information relevant to family (the date my brother's daughter, Susie, was born, etc.)

I'm not sure what I can do with the remainder. I told the story in past tense--this is what happened. When I get to stories told me by others, when I was not present, I've switched (in separate chapters) to omniscient, complete with scene setting and dialogue. Having done that, I wondered if that's permissible in non-fiction. If I use straight narrative, it loses much of the impact and drama, and I lose opportunities for character-building.

No, it's not about dodging too-intense memories. I met that challenge a long time ago. It's just more a matter of structure. Since it's a story of a family, it's more about how to structure it to get those other stories in--the ones I didn't witness.

Since you've mentioned it, I'm wondering how difficult it would be to change to present tense.


I didn't see this coming; my knowledge comes from being about eleven months further along than you are.
Read memoir, figure out what you don't like about any of them, and write a better one.

I've been reading a lot of memoir and stories about family: Frank McCourt, of course, Jennifer Lauer's (sp?) Blackbird, and the followup, Tuesdays with Morrie, Rick Bragg's books, and others.Most of these are straight memoir, rather than a story about a group of people. Rick Bragg does a little of what I'm trying to do, but he handles it mostly with narrative. I guess that comes from his journalism background.

You're welcome.

Again, I thank you. I will take another look at Angela's Ashes and see if McCourt handles the sort of thing I'm talking about.

May I ask what you're writing and whether you have posted anything in the forums?

Ritergal
08-05-2008, 03:43 AM
I'm trying to remember where I saw a related question recently about how to handle "stories that were told to me" within a memoir. My hunch is that it would work well to do this as a sort of memory flashback to the time you were hearing the story. You remember hearing it, so it's still part of "your" story.

In my book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, I include an essay about "The Art and Science of Memory." In this essay, I write about a memory of overhearing a conversation between my mother and grandmother. I don't include the contents of that conversation, because it wasn't relevant to the story of the essay, but in a similar situation, it may be highly relevant. Including the details of my situation as I listened, I could include the whole conversation/story and keep the event in first person the whole time, because I, the Narrator, am also the listener and interpreter of what I hear.

Perhaps that's the key. Are you planning to include the story as told and let it go at that, or interpret it to anchor it into your own life?

Back to that original thought -- about the person who planned to include "stories that were told to me," I believe s/he planned to put these stories in a separate chapter, clearly labeled as to source. I'd still rather read such material as if it were being told rather than in third person omniscient. On the other hand, if you had to dig out the facts from historical ledgers, perhaps the latter would work.

Now isn't this a tidy answer? Lots of suggestions! Follow your heart, hunch, inner voice, or whatever works for you.

Chrisla
08-06-2008, 01:00 AM
I'm trying to remember where I saw a related question recently about how to handle "stories that were told to me" within a memoir. My hunch is that it would work well to do this as a sort of memory flashback to the time you were hearing the story. You remember hearing it, so it's still part of "your" story.

The problem here is that I can't do memory flashback with some of it. A family story is a little like a puzzle. It's not complete until you get all the pieces. I didn't hear some of these stories until years later, after my siblings had become adults. Some I didn't hear until I talked to cousins while I was writing the book, and they filled in missing pieces. But, yes, I can handle part of it as memory flashbacks.

Perhaps that's the key. Are you planning to include the story as told and let it go at that, or interpret it to anchor it into your own life?

Perhaps there's too much of the fiction writer in me! There's always that urge to "develop" that story I was told into a scene. For this book, I think I have to move away from that.

Back to that original thought -- about the person who planned to include "stories that were told to me," I believe s/he planned to put these stories in a separate chapter, clearly labeled as to source. I'd still rather read such material as if it were being told rather than in third person omniscient. On the other hand, if you had to dig out the facts from historical ledgers, perhaps the latter would work.

Now isn't this a tidy answer? Lots of suggestions! Follow your heart, hunch, inner voice, or whatever works for you.

All the suggestions help. I can mull them over, think about ways I can work with the material, and perhaps come up with a winning combination. Thanks for your input. I do appreciate it.