On Memoir – A Reflection by Leigh Hopkinson

During a recent online discussion at Taipei Writers Group, a member asked about the legal ramifications of disclosing controversial material in one’s memoir. I immediately thought of fellow writer and family friend Leigh Hopkinson, who published her memoir “Two Decades Naked” in April.  TWG’s first guest contributor, Leigh reflects on her memoir experience and offers some advice for writers considering the sharing the more sensitive times of our lives.

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As writers, we’re often encouraged to write what we know, so it’s unsurprising that memoir has become such a popular genre. However, our proximity to our subject matter is also what makes writing a memoir challenging. During the three years I spent writing Two Decades Naked, a memoir about striptease recently published by Hachette, that challenge manifested in different ways at different stages of the process.

Initially, I decided to disguise my memories as a novel. But a novel has its own genre requirements and life doesn’t unfold in the same way. I spent a lot of time trying to cram the messiness of my past into the constraints of fiction. It didn’t work, partly because I wasn’t very good at making things up. In fact, I was trying to do the exact opposite, to recount my memories as accurately as possible. Eventually, I had to acknowledge that I was writing a memoir. This forced me to address my concerns about sharing my story truthfully, which is an essential part of the memoir-writing process.

Memoir is classified non-fiction, so readers and publishers alike expect memoirists to tell the truth, to the best of their recollection. I was concerned about complete disclosure, because I didn’t know how my truth would be received. Like autobiography, memoir is an intensely personal genre: when the work is criticised, it can feel like you’re being personally rejected. On top of this, social stigma surrounds stripping and sex work in general, so I knew that writing about my past could negatively affect my future, as well as the lives of family and friends. However, owning my truth felt important and I was motivated to write to make sense of my life, which isn’t possible if you’re fabricating details. And while I couldn’t control other people’s responses, I would be better positioned within myself to deal with any potential fallout if I told my truth. Also, selfishly, I wanted to be published. With non-fiction comprising around 70% of the book market, shying away from memoir would have made the road to publication even more difficult.

I persevered, and soon realised there were ways of controlling if, when and how information was publicly disclosed. For example, I had the option of writing under a pseudonym. This didn’t resonate, but I did want to reduce the impact of my story’s publication on other people. So I decided not to publish my memoir until after my parents had retired in case it affected their livelihoods. (Other memoirists have waited until certain family members have passed away.) I also employed the ‘if in doubt, take it out’ rule, which meant writing the tough stuff, but removing it if I had any doubts about its accuracy, if I felt unduly bothered by its inclusion, or if it wasn’t central to the story.

As memoirists, we can get hung up on telling ‘the whole truth’, but to write memoir is to write your version of events. We all experience life personally, so our viewpoint can never be wholly objective. In fact, memoir is by its very nature subjective: it demands we recant our own unique story. Also, memory is unreliable and the way we remember fragmented, spatial rather than chronological. For these reasons, I gave family and friends a later draft of the manuscript to check for accuracy, and at their suggestion, made several small changes.

I also took my writing teacher’s advice and let the emotional heart or message of the story guide my selection of material. Initially, this felt like a strange kind of honesty, but as I wrote on, I realised it was sound advice. What we leave out affects the telling as much as what we put in. And I simply couldn’t fit every detail of my stripping life over two decades into 300 pages! I trusted the emotional integrity of the work would carry through, regardless of what was conflated or left out.

Not all memoirists realise at the onset (I definitely didn’t) that memoir is afforded certain liberties not extended to other forms of non-fiction such as journalism. It’s considered perfectly acceptable to conflate characters and change identifying characteristics, and to alter sequences of events—necessary, even, in order to tell a good story and to protect individual privacy. Coming from a background in journalism, it took me a while to get used to this idea. However, I could alert the reader by including a disclaimer (I did), and the pros far outweighed the cons. It allowed me to streamline the narrative, protect identities and avoid legal ramifications.

Every publisher will have a manuscript legally checked before it goes to print. However, the author’s contract may indemnify the publisher against potential claims or actions, leaving the author solely liable. If this is the case, the last word really does rest with you, the writer, so if in doubt, leave it out. And if you’re self-publishing, I’d recommend getting your manuscript legally checked beforehand. It’s a small step in the long journey to publication, the end point of which should be marked by celebration, not commiseration.

In my experience, writing a memoir can be a confronting process, but with perseverance, deliberation, self-belief, and the support of a good writing community, it can also be a rewarding one. While it’s too soon to tell how my memoir has been received by the public at large, initial feedback from friends and community has been positive. Either way, I’ve come to view the publication of my memoir as a personally significant milestone in what will hopefully be a life-long writing journey.

Recommended:

The Memoir Book by Patty Miller

The Paris Review Interview – Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir No. 1

The Book Club – Jennifer Byrne Presents: Memoir

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Leigh Hopkinson is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based writer and editor. She has an Associate Degree in Professional Writing and Editing, and a Graduate Diploma in Journalism. Her non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications on both sides of the Tasman. Leigh has also worked fleetingly as a yoga teacher and prolifically as a table dancer. TWO DECADES NAKED is her first book.

Learn more about Leigh Hopkinson at www.leighhopkinson.com.

You can also follow her on Facebook.

Buy Two Decades Naked instore or online.

Have you considered writing a memoir? What has been holding you back? Or what research have you done that might benefit other writers? Let’s start a conversation.

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Tips to Help You Write a Novel

A recent post in The Writer’s Digest got me laughing. Titled 7 Things That Will Doom Your Novel (& How to Avoid Them), the article highlights, in a tongue-in-cheek style, some of the many reasons would-be writers fail to complete their masterpiece. Waiting for inspiration, self-doubt, resentment and giving up are some of the reasons stated and there are others. If you’re stuck in the novel-writing doldrums, here are some ideas to help.

Inspiration

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Waiting for inspiration to strike is a big obstacle for some. The problem is centred around the myth that good writing in only produced when the muse magically appears, or we’re ‘in the mood’ or something moves us to write. The fact is, successful writers treat writing like a job. They turn up on time and do their work, regardless of whether they are bursting with ideas or not. If you wait until a brilliant idea pops into your head, you may find you never manage to do very much writing at all. Often, ideas come after you start writing, not before.

Self-Doubt

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Worrying that your writing is bad is natural. We all have moments of self-doubt about our abilities, especially when it comes to something as subjective and unquantifiable as ‘good’ writing. If you manage to write a novel or other longer work, the self-doubt demon often raises its head about midway, after you’ve committed so much time and effort that it would be a serious setback to give up and start something new. You can sometimes temporarily overcome self-doubt through the support of family, friends and other writers, but the only effective long-term solution I’ve found is to accept that your writing may be bad, but to write anyway. Usually, when you look back you find it isn’t as terrible as you thought.

Resentment

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Taking offence at rejection or adverse comments on your writing is going to slow you down, if not put you off writing altogether. When you spend hours crafting a piece only for its ideal market to return it within days, or even hours, it hurts of course. And it can be hard to accept feedback that seems to point mostly to the faults of your writing while failing to see its merits. But the negative emotion of resentment is a drag on your energy and productivity. The best way to prevent resentment from interfering with your writing I’ve found is to put on your big girl knickers and move on, seriously.

Rejection

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Publishing is full of stories of classics that were rejected 50+ times, and in recent history there have been many instances of traditional publishers rejecting novels that went on to sell hundreds of thousands when self-published. What do all these stories have in common? The writers never gave up. The same is true of every book that appears for sale. Understand the pros and cons of giving up before you make that decision. Giving up isn’t the easy option, especially if you’re contemplating giving up writing entirely. It means living with regret and wondering what might have been. It’s easier to live with hope than without it.

Planning

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So much for what you shouldn’t do if you want to write a novel. What about the things you should do? One of the most important aspects of novel writing is to have a plan. Not necessarily a plan of the novel, but at the very least a plan of how you’re going to get the work done. If you do prefer to plan your writing – and many have found that outlining is the fastest route to completing a novel – I recommend Take Off Your Pants as a valuable guide to structuring your writing. If you prefer to pants it, planning how you’re going to write your novel helps you get it done. Whether it’s 1000 words a day, four hours a weekend or ten chapters a month, setting goals helps you achieve progress. Having no goals is a sure-fire way of allowing life to intrude on your ambitions.

Feedback

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When you have a sizeable piece of work, solicit feedback. This could be from online writers’ forums, writing groups or friends or family who are experienced readers. (Beware – the danger of approaching friends and family is that they’ll only tell you positive things about your work. Kind though this is, it isn’t helpful. Only honest feedback helps you improve as a writer.) As well as helping you improve, feedback can spur you to continue writing, providing you can avoid feeling resentment.

Submitting

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Submitting your novel may seem like the obvious end point of the novel-writing process, but writing and sending off that query letter or sample chapter is a high hurdle for some. Suddenly the novel becomes a real thing in the real world and the fear of rejection becomes insurmountable. One method for overcoming that fear is to view publishers’ responses not as the ultimate arbiters of your worth as a human being, but as a sign of their estimation of your novel’s likelihood of commercial success (because that’s what they actually are). Alternatively, when you’re sure your novel is the best it can be, and you have professional editing and a gorgeous cover, you can self-publish and find out for yourself your novel’s appeal to the masses.

Writing a novel is an ambition many have but few execute, and the reasons are often less to do with practical constraints than the inability to overcome the many obstacles our minds place in the way. If you’re really struggling to write, I recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Though the book strays uncomfortably far into spiritual territory for my tastes, it’s spot on when discussing the writer’s (and other artists’) struggle. Understanding why it’s so hard to complete your novel is the first step to defeating your writing demons. You CAN succeed.

 

 

Shameless Self-Promotion for Authors

Whether traditional or indie published, writers these days need to get over their reluctance to self-promote. Sure, if you’re Margaret Atwood or Neil Gaiman you’re going to sell books regardless of whether or not you post on Facebook and Twitter, but for most authors, self-promotion is a necessary evil.

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Margaret Atwood@MargaretAtwood

 

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Neil Gaiman@neilhimself

A phenomenon tied up with the creation of art is the notion that if the work is good enough it will naturally find its audience. The evidence supporting this idea is a tautology: we judge that successful works are good because they’re successful; but in fact there are many highly successful novels that aren’t well-written, even when generously assessed. A more important factor in a book’s success is that readers are aware of it.

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Writers are notoriously introverted, and of all professions they’re one of the least likely to be found on social media. They’re also reluctant to use social media and other promotional tools to draw attention to their books. While such an attitude is understandable, it hinders writing careers.

 

The Reality of Book Promotion

Nowadays writers can take several routes to publication. They can submit to literary agents or directly to traditional publishing houses, pay a vanity publishing company to publish their book (an expensive and ill-advised method), or indie publish. Traditional publishers often handle promotion to a lesser or greater degree on behalf of the writer (though many smaller houses often rely on writers also promoting their work); vanity publishers may or may not include promotion as part of their service; but for indie writers, self-promotion is part and parcel of the work needed to sell books.

How to Promote Books

No one likes a braggart, and no one enjoys being spammed with endless Buy My Book ads, so how can indie writers draw attention to their work without being annoying? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of self-promotion methods:

  • Book Promotion Sites

A range of paid and free sites that advertise books have sprung up in recent years. Depending on the number of reviews and the book’s genre, some of these are worth the cost or effort required. Here‘s a list of useful sites.

  • Amazon Promotion Days

If a book is enrolled in Amazon Select, the author can reduce its price to 99 cents while retaining 70% royalties for seven days, or offer the book free for five days, per three-month enrolment period. When advertised at some of the promotion sites mentioned above, these can be useful methods for getting books to readers

  • Social Media

Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites are some of the most controversial for selling books, mostly due to insensitive advertising and overuse, but they can be great resources for engaging and building a relationship with readers who are interested in your writing. Blanket, random advertising is unlikely to be effective, but as a way for readers to interact with writers and for targeted advertising, they’re invaluable. Mark Dawson offers excellent, free advice.

  • Book Review Blogs

Popular book review blogs can introduce a book to many readers, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult for writers to get a slot because reviewers often have a backlog of books to read and review. It helps to pick a site that deals exclusively in the book’s genre and follow the submission details to the letter to increase the chances of the book being picked. It also helps to submit the book several weeks prior to publication so the reviewer can tout the novel as a new release.

Poor Book Promotion Advice

There’s a lot of poor promotion advice given to writers, often by traditionally published authors and others who have little or no experience of independently selling books, such as the above-mentioned notion that a good book will naturally sell well. Writers are also advised to write another book, thank their publishing team and be kind to their colleagues (I’m not joking) as methods for raising their profiles as authors. Such advice is at best misguided and at worst disingenuous, and leads to disappointment and a sense of failure when writers put their hearts and souls into writing excellent novels, only to find they don’t magically rise to bestseller status. I liken it to a child being told if they’re good Santa will bring them presents.

Indie Book Promotion in the Real World

The first step to becoming a full-time indie author is to tell a good story and avoid writing badly. This means good developmental editing and proofreading. The next step is to provide an excellent, eye-catching cover and engaging blurb that entice readers to find out more. When those goals are met, the writer needs eyes on the book, which means shameless self-promotion.

Traditional publishing doesn’t rely on the authors writing another book, thanking the publishing team or being kind to sell books. No, it spends great deal of effort and money on book promotion. An unknown indie writer has little choice but to do the same. Self-promotion is essential to recognition, and writers should understand that promoting their books, in a non-annoying or invasive way, isn’t shameful bragging, it’s taking their art seriously and behaving like a professional.

Image of Neil Gaiman courtesy of Wikicommons.

Image of Margaret Atwood courtesy of Wikicommons.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writing a Fiction Series: Monstrous Challenges

Bruce Lee, relevant for his being both an athlete and an artist/philosopher, wrote famously: “Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts it is glorious even to fail.”

I am an author and also a surfer. The two complement each other better than might be immediately apparent. For example, the quote above definitely applies to surfing. If you search for videos of professional surfers online, you’ll see two things in focus: the most unbelievably successful rides and the most painful wipeouts ever recorded. Mediocrity is just not worth putting into the edits. It is often said among surfers that if you aren’t going to have a exquisite ride you may as well have an exquisite wipeout. More relevant perhaps, is the surfing adage that if you aren’t wiping out often, you aren’t trying hard enough.

When I go surfing, I’m proud of myself for paddling into a large wave (relative to my comfort level), what surfers call a cleanup set — a wave that’s much bigger than the average for a day. When that monster wave comes and I look up at it, it is very intimidating, but still worth going for. Either way something memorable is going to come from it. I will either get the best ride of the day or get thrown into a very violent washing machine.

I’ve written elsewhere that novelists take on the marathon of the arts. How long does it take to finish a painting? A poem? An essay? A song? How long does it take to prepare your lines and act in a play? To do a dance routine? Compare that to how long it takes to write a good novel: many sources say a year is too short.

If writing long fiction is the marathon of the arts, then writing a series is closer to an ultra-marathon. A marathon is about 42km. So your triology is going to feel like a 150km ultra-marathon. Some ultras are 200km. That’s what writing a multi-volume series is like.

I’m currently taking on a series that may run to 20 short books. I estimate, because each volume is not very long, it will run to about 800,000-1 million words. So is this going to be a wipeout so bad its a waste of years of my life? Or will it be my life’s greatest accomplishment?

I don’t know, but that’s exciting isn’t it? We only live once. One life, once chance to do something amazing. To push ourselves to the limit in whatever makes us happy. It’s why people mountaineer, go on polar expeditions, hike the Appalachian Trail, surf waves that might kill them, and do heavy squats for four years just for one chance at an Olympic medal. In death, I think, all failure will be forgotten. So the question is, what if I succeed?

I don’t mean succeed at getting book contracts and movie deals and all the public praise authors dream of. The market for books is kind of like the restaurant market. Most fail. To say it is a tough business is an understatement so misleading as to nearly be a lie. That would be akin to actually winning 1st place in an ultra-marathon. I mean what if I succeed in just finishing the thing to the end?

Imagine the sense of accomplishment any of us would feel if we wrote a multi-book series we at least are proud of. It’s a deed that will remain with us for the rest of our lives. Quite a unique thing to have on one’s shelf. The series I wrote, sitting on my shelf. That’s what I dream of. Thanks to the support and encouragement of the Taipei Writers Group, I’m not the only one who is well on my way to having that.

Bruce Lee is right about this. It will be glorious even to fail.

I saw another quote recently while listening to classical music while writing.

Ludwig van Beethoven

“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets, for it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”-Ludwig van Beethoven

I don’t agree with Beethoven. I don’t think it can make us divine. But the secrets of one’s art are the secrets of life itself.

We can learn something from inside fiction that helps us to create fiction and create a meaningful life. I was just talking to fellow TWG member Jeremy A. TeGrotenhuis about how compelling villains are often more important than compelling protagonists, because tension comes from there being a real possibility that the protagonist could fail. This is a secret of the art of writing that is also a secret of life.

I want to write a 20 book series. I want to take on a pursuit where almost everyone is guaranteed to fail. I want to run the ultra-marathon of the arts. Because what’s my life, what’s my story, without a worthy challenge I have a real chance of failing at?

A theme of my writing is that the cozy sort of happiness, contentment, is overrated. Excitement, tension, and the feeling of being alive — that’s true living for me. I feel it when I see that big wave approaching. I feel it when I go to the coffee shop and sit for hours, knowing I’ll only made millimetric progress towards the massive goal of finishing my series. I get to wonder on a daily basis if I’ll finish it, what it will feel like if I finish it, whether anyone will like it.

A life where each day includes not just happiness, but the thrill of struggling with a challenge I’m not sure I can handle, that’s a life I’m really enjoying living. That’s my secret.

I hope it helps if you’re inclined to start the journey yourself.

By the way the first two books of my series are already available on Amazon, so please check out Chadwick Yates and the Cannibal Shrine and Chadwick Yates and the Forest Labyrinth if you enjoyed this piece and want to see what I’ve been up to.

-Bradley Verdell