The Making of a Memoir: Stage 1: Prewriting Tasks

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His Name Was Michael

I’m starting this bi-monthly blog series, The Making of a Memoir, which will chronicle my journey as I write my memoir of my teenage son’s suicide and my life without him, breaking down the memoir process into stages. I am sharing thios process for several reasons. One, Michael’s story deserves to be told. It needs to be told. Two, telling my own story may act as a catharthis and help me to resolve my own unresolved issues surrounding Mike’s death. Three, commiting to bi-monthly accountability to you, my readers and fellow authors, forces me to create and meet deadlines, assuring that I make adequate progress on the book. It is too easy to make excuses and avoid the emotionally difficult tasks if I’m accountable only to myself. And four, I believe there are those of you out there who are interested in the methodology behind creating memoir.

Before I can begin writing the my memoir telling the story of my son’s death and the story of my own journey to find closure and my need to be sure that he will always be remembered, I must know what it is that I want to say, and have some idea of how I want to present it. After Michael’s death, I went through his writings and artwork, I went through every picture of him over and over and over. I listened to his music. And I cried and cried, and I thought I would never stop. It never has. At least not completely, but I did gain control over it by putting all his things away, to be dealt with at a later time. I knew I needed to tell his story then, but I wasn’t ready. Not then.

I actually made several false starts at writing his story at different times, I wrote poetry, some of it semi-epic, but the emotional wounds were still fresh. I was angry and overcome by grief, and I wanted by son back. I wasn’t able to portray what I was feeling with the depth of emotions I was experiencing. I had to set it all aside and heal some before I could undertake this immense task.

In addition, I wasn’t a skilled enough writer to undertake it at that point. I’ve since earned my M.F.A. in Creative Writing, published three books, and have short fiction and poetry featured in several publications and anthologies. Does that make me an expert now? No. But it has taken me down that path, and certainly I know more about writing books and my writing skills are much improved. I believe that I’m ready now to undertake the writing of my son’s story and my own.

There is no doubt in my mind that this book will be the most difficult book I could ever attempt to write. It is difficult because there is so much emotional investment in this book for me. I’ve collected and saved a mass of materials which may or may not end up in this memoir, but it first must be sorted and compiled. This is a difficult task because of the emotions attached to every piece of material I’ve collected and with the memories associated with each one. Michael has been gone from my life for a decade, but the compilation of these materials still must be taken slowly, a little at a time.

On the other hand, emotional investment in the author lends authenticity to the story and that, according to some, leads to best seller material that people want to read. If you go by that thinking, the more difficult the book is to write, the better it will be. You can let me know if I’m right after you’ve read it.

I thought I had the title. His Name Was Michael: How I lost my son to teen suicide. The title, “His Name Was Michael”, is perfect, for it reflects the feelings I had as time passed and others went on with their lives. Sometimes, I felt that everyone had forgotten about him except my husband and I. A title that would make people remember is a must, and I think it does that. But the subtitle, “How I lost my son to teen suicide”, although clearly and concisely telling the reader what the story is about, it doesn’t roll off my tongue smoothly when I say it aloud. I came up with the idea of  replacing it with “No Happy Endings”, and although it states a truth about this story, the potential reader picking it up off the shelf or spotting it online, might pass it over because it sounds depressing and doesn’t really tell them what the book is about. At this point, I have to wonder if a subtitle is even necessary. Comments on Facebook reflect the idea that the title is strongest without any subtitle. So, I am rethinking the title and I’m open to suggestions or thoughts in the comments.

There is still much to do in addition to compiling material and deciding on a title, before I can begin the actual writing of the story, pre-writing tasks, if you will. There are still more materials to gather and research to be done. I know you may be wondering what there is to research. Don’t I know my own story? After all I lived it. But the fact is there is research to be done on every book. On this one, I need to know things like statistics on teen suicide, and I need resources for warning signs of suicide and other information on the subject. I may not use everything I dig up, but I will have it available if I decide that it has a place in this book. I believe it does but I haven’t worked out how I want to present it. There is so much that I want to say, but not all of it belongs. Finding my voice for this book will mean finding my true voice.

There are several people I need to interview, people who I haven’t seen since Michael died, people who have something valuable to contribute to his story. I must learn to control the emotional whirpool that surfaces when I anticipate these contacts, the memories connected, cause turmoil within me. But, I know his story must be told, and to tell it in the manner it deserves, and so, I must contain my emotions and silence the memories in order to what must be done. The very act of doing this very difficult task for the sake of his story will become a part of my own, for it is my story, as well.

There must be at least a vague outline, which is now begining to take shape in my head. I believe I know how I want to begin the story and the structure I need to use. The next step will be to get it down in print, so I have a clear direction in which I want the story to go which I can refer back to to ensure that I stay on track. Outlines are a valuable tool  in giving any story direction and making sure it doesn’t veer off into left field and lose the storyline and the way I’ve chosen to structure this particular story demands that guidance.

I’m starting this blog series, The Making of a Memoir, which will break down the memoir process into stages, for two reasons. One, Michael’s story deserves to be told. It needs to be told. Two, telling my own story may act as a catharthis and help me to resolve my own unresolved issues surrounding Mike’s death. And three, commiting to bi-monthly accountability to you, my readers and fellow authors, forces me to create and meet deadlines, assuring that I make adequate progress on the book. It is too easy to make excuses and avoid the emotionally difficult tasks if I’m accountable only to myself.

Since I hope to get this memoir published traditionally, I will also need a book proposal, a query letter and somewhere around the first three to five chapters for that. We’ll cover that in the April segment The Making of a Memoir: Stage 2: Selling the story. I do hope you will join me on my journey.

 

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Monthly Writing Memo: The One and Only Writing Rule

As almost every writer knows, anywhere you go to discuss writing will always have someone proclaiming their tried and true rules for writing that you MUST follow. Post on any writing forum whether it be for screenwriting or fiction and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of eager “expert” or “professional” writers ready to tell you exactly which rules matter and which are hogwash. Yes, many of these writers have published novels or sold scripts and are professionals in the industry, but does that mean their rules are THE rules to follow?

Absolutely not.

Let me say that again – Absolutely not. Just because someone has sold a script or published a novel or piece of writing doesn’t mean that they will be able to give you rules to writing that will be guaranteed to work on your story. If you put every writer who ever sold something in a room and asked them to come up with a master list of writing rules it’d be impossible. There’d be factions who think you can never write in present tense and others who think a description of the weather should never start a novel.

There’d be groups who think the epitome of literary or cinematic genius is one specific piece of work, and others who think that same work is a crock of shit. If the people who are actually selling works of writing cannot agree on what makes good writing, and which writing rules are always true, then how on earth can a newbie writer even dream of making it in the industry, let alone be brave enough to even try to put words on the page?

Ultimately, all of this boils down to one single fact about writing: There are hundreds of rules for writing, but one of those rules is that there are no rules. Now before you dip out of this article, because that’s a useless piece of advice in the previous sentence, give me a chance to elaborate.

Writing is a subjective thing. Every story is going to require following a different mix of rules to make it work. That’s why whenever I write a post about the “rules” of writing, I try to explain which situations the rule applies to, and where it might not apply. Also, every writer is going to have different opinions about what makes a good story, and every publisher/studio/audience is going to have a different opinion about what they find marketable and worth buying. If this is true, which based on the evidence presented through comparing a wide range of published and produced pieces of writing it is, then the one and only real rule for writing is that you have to know the “What” and the “Why” of your story.

Essentially, knowing the What’s and Why’s of your story is all about researching the genre or style of writing you want to write by studying the existing works in that genre, and being conscious about your story and your writing choices so that you can answer the following questions on each project you work on:

  • What writing “rules” do you have to follow for this particular story? In general, writing rules are not actually rules at all, but rather they’re typical or common guidelines of storytelling that work or don’t work based on previously existing works. So knowing what “rules” you have to follow just means you know which “rules” actually apply to what you’re writing, and which don’t. If you’ve done your due diligence and prep work before writing by studying other works that are similar to what you want to write, then you should have a general idea of what the common rules of that style or genre of story are, and which might apply to your story.
  • Why are you following or ignoring these rules? Every time someone tells you a “rule” for writing, it’s important to understand why the rule exists, and where it applies. For your own work, always be able to justify why you’re breaking one set of rules, and why you’re following other rules. You may not have to follow all the “rules” in your writing, but people come up with these various rules for a reason, so understanding why they exist will help you understand why you need to follow certain ones and ignore others in your work.
  • What is your setting, characters, plot, etc.? If you don’t know this when you’re writing, then your writing will probably be all over the place. Some people can free-write and discover a lot of these details as they go, but it is almost universally true that having these elements solidly in mind before writing will make your writing stronger.
  •  Why are you choosing these characters, this setting, that plot, etc.? Ultimately, the core of writing is to make deliberate choices and to be able to justify those choices as being ones that serve the story. Every character, setting, plot device, and elements of your story down to word choice can have a major impact on your writing. The more deliberate and conscious you can be in your choices, the more your writing should come together to tell a successful story.

As you can see, this one and only writing rule really boils down to being conscious about each choice you make in your writing and constantly asking yourself why whenever you are presented with a “rule” that someone thinks is universally true. All of these “rules” people come up with regarding writing are the results of people looking for the magic formula to a guaranteed sale on a piece of work, and they find it by looking for common elements across sold pieces of writing. While it is often true that these elements do exist, there are also just as many pieces of writing out there that break these trends.

Every story is its own thing and has its own identity, and I’m a firm believer that if you focus on serving the story rather than trying to force it to fit pre-existing rules or expectations, then your story will be better for it. I’m not saying you’re guaranteed to sell it, no one can guarantee that, but I am saying if you stay true to your story even if it means breaking the rules, your story will be stronger.

The important thing is to know what “rules” exist and to be able to justify why you broke these preconceived rules that people have and to show that you did so consciously. Ultimately, people aren’t going to focus on whether you broke the “rules” or not with your writing when deciding to buy it, they’re going to focus on whether you’ve put in the work to construct a compelling story that people want to read. If you do that, nothing else matters.

 

Robin Conley offers great writing advice once a month on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next month to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


The Making of a Screenplay: The Creative Process (Part 3)

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Many students of literary writing issue moans and groans when it comes time to do the research for their book. After all we’re writers, not researchers, right? But the fact is, that in order to write the story, even though it may be fictional, you half to know your stuff, and with literature, that could mean being familiar with the time period you’re writing about, or when certain items or words came into use, or being familiar with the place in which your book is set. If you’re writing a science fiction novel, you must at least be somewhat familiar with the science of the technologies you’re writing about, and even in fantasy works, you must be familiar with what the fantasy creatures you’re writing about are capable of.

It’s no different in screenwriting. You need to be familiar with the time period and location your screenplay takes place in, as well as being familiar with what the tropes are for your genre and what has been done that is similar to your story. But, I haven’t heard screenwriters complaining, maybe because the research is a little bit different than literary research. In fact, research in screenwritng can be fun.

In Parts 1, I talked about how the story goes from idea to beat sheet and/or outline. In Part 2, I described the tools used to sell a screenplay. Now, let’s look at the research that goes into a screenplay, and don’t shy away, because in screenwriting, the research is the fun part.

 

Research

Both literary writing and screenwriting require research. The type and extent of research required depends on what you’re writing. I watched every documentary on Bonnie and Clyde that I could find, as well as every DIY film on YouTube I could find, in order to get a feel for who these two people were. This helped a lot in determining what their bios would look like and how they would be portrayed in the film. I also visited websites with information on them and websites on the depression era, where I picked up slang from the 20s, which I salted my screenplay with to give it the proper feel.

But there’s a different kind of research you do in screenwriting, in addition to the research mentioned above. In screenwriting, you examine movies that are similar to yours in some way to learn what’s been done, and what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you may chose a movie just because it has a scene similar to one you’re trying to do and you want to see how they went about it. This is one of the neatest things about screenwriting, you get to sit around and watch movies and call it work.

For my thesis, obviously any fictional portrayals of the outlaw couple needed to be on my list, but I also wanted to watch other gangster type movies to get a feel for the lifestyle, and the era. I watched biographical pictures to learn how they make real life events fit into the screenplay formula, and buddy love films to see how they allow one character to lead another into things, without portraying the leading character as a villain. It was amazing when I realized the different things I learned from each one.

 

Movie List

  • Bonnie and Clyde, 1967, written by David Newman and Robert Benton – this was the original movie that we all think of when we think of the outlaw couple. It glamourizes Bonnie and Clyde, what they did and how they lived, and portrayed them as cold, blood-thirsty killers. This was not how I wanted to portray them, and I didn’t want to do what had already been done, so this film showed me what I didn’t want to do.
  • Bonnie and Clyde 2013 miniseries on the History channel – this portrayal of the couple really played up the cold blooded killer image of all of them, Blanche and Buck, as well as Bonnie and Clyde, and it’s a ruthlessness that I don’t believe was truly there. Again, I learned what not to do. I wanted my screenplay to be very different from this.
  • Donnie Brasco, 1997, adapted by Paul Attanatio from the book by Joseph D. Pistone and Richard Woodley– I found this to be one of the best mob movies I had ever seen. I was truly impressed with the craftsmanship seen in this film. I chose it because of the similar situation, getting caught up in circumstance and events beyond the character’s control.
  • Black Mass, 2015, written by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth – Not only is this film a crime drama, but it is a bio-pic, based on the true story of the criminal career of mobster Whitey Bulger. The similarity here was found in the way the character Whitey Bulger rationalized his actions, which I considered when having Bonnie rationalize her actions, and what she was willing to do in order to be with Clyde. I also looked at this film in regards to how they set the events to the beats in the film.
  • Dillinger, 1973, written and directed by John Millius – Not only is this a bio-pic, but they make mention of Bonnie and Clyde in this movie, which gave me the idea to make mention of Dillinger and other well-known gangsters of the time in my own screenplay as a means of marking the time period.
  • Scarface, 1983, written by Oliver Stone – This is an excellent movie, but I didn’t take a lot away from it which could be used in my screenplay. Bonnie and Clyde weren’t anywhere near the big time criminal that character Tony Montana a.k.a. Scarface, was in this bio-pic.
  • The Untouchables, 1981, written by David Mamet – This movie gave me a feel for the times, and the public sentiment towards the criminal element which was prominent in the times.
  • Public Enemies, 2009, written by Michael Mann, Ronan Bennett and Ann Biderman – This is a period film that was set in the same time period as my own screenplay. It deals with the gangster subculture of the times, of which Bonnie and Clyde ran on the fringes.
  • Thelma & Louise, 1991, written by Callie Khouri This buddy love is similar in circumstance to my screenplay in that the protagonist gets swept up in the circumstances, and that the circumstances were created by the choices the protagonist makes, and that they both die in the end.
  • The Falcon and the Snowman, 1985, from the book, The Falcon and the Snowman: A Story of True Friends and Espionage, by Robert Lindsay and adapted by Steven Zaillian – I viewed this movie for some of the same reasons I viewed Thelma & Louise. The protagonists gets caught up in circumstances of their own creation, brought about by the choices that they made, which send them on a downward spiral. Plus it is a biographical film, based on a true story.
  • Natural Born Killers, 1994, written by Quentin Tarantino and revised by David Veloz – Although this movie is very bizarre, the protagonists are lovers on a crime spree. Like previous portrayals of Bonnie & Clyde, these two are portrayed as cold-blooded killers, ruthless, killing for the fun of it. That is not the story I wanted to tell, therefore this movie showed me more of what I did not want to do in my own screenplay.
  • Blow, 2001, adapted by David McKenna and Nick Cassavetes from the book by  Bruce Porter, Blow: How a Small Town Boy Made $100 Million with the Medellín Cocaine Cartel and Lost It All – This is a biographical film of cocaine smuggler Gorge Jung, so I was looking at how the events were shaped to make up the beats of the movie, and it is another story where the protagonist gets caught up in the criminal elements due to the choices made, and their life spins out of control in a downward spiral.
  • Coal Miner’s Daughter, 1980, written by George Vecsey as an adaption of the biography of country singer, Loretta Lynn – In this film I was looking for how the events were molded into the beat sheet formula of screenplay, as well as the romance elements.
  • What’s Love Got to do with It?, 1993, adapted by Kate Lanier from the book I, Tina, by Tina Turner and Kurt Loder – This biographical film tells the story of how Tina Turner found the courage to break out of an abusive relationship. What I took away from this film was the way that Tina rationalized staying with her husband, Ike, how she kept telling herself that things would change, which is very similar to how my Bonnie rationalizes staying with Clyde, first believing he will change and go straight, and when it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen she allowed herself to believe they would go away to California.

 

Of course, this type of research, the fun stuff, has its equivalent in literary writing. It’s always good to read books in your genre to see what’s out there and know the tropes. The real difference is that in literature, the author is always trying to come up with a totally original idea, but in screenwriting, its acceptable, in fact encouraged, to use movies that have already been done successfully in describing what your movie is about in the logline or pitch, where you explain how your movie is the same as ­­­­(a movie that’s already out there), but different. It is common practice in Hollywood, apparently, to describe your movie or television series as: (Title of existing movie) with a twist. For example, I described the pilot series that I wrote, titled Unhappily Ever After, as “A reverse Once Upon a Time combined with a humorous Into the Woods.” You can tell a lot about my pilot series from that, but I’ll have to save that for another post.

The point here is, in screenwriting it’s okay to do the same story someone else has done, as long as you give it some kind of twist to set it apart from the rest. For my thesis, I told the story from Bonnie’s perspective and that made it a very different movie from the other portrayals of the same story.

Next week we’ll take a look at the last step in creating the finished screenplay, rewriting. A screenwriter rewrites constantly, for as many drafts as it takes to get the desired results and make her screenplay tell the story she wants to tell, the way she wants to tell it.

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