How long does it take to write a memoir?

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How long does it take to write a memoir? Both longer, and shorter than you’d think.

Many famous memoir writers had their stories swirling in their heads for years, before they even began writing.

A career full of stories

James Herriot, author of the classic veterinary stories from Northern England bored his wife for years over lunch with stories about incidents from his work as a vet. ‘I’ll put that in my book one day,’ he said, constantly.

‘You’ve been saying that for 25 years,’ she said one day. ‘If you were going to write a book, you’d have done it by now.’

Herriot took the challenge, bought some paper, and began almost immediately to write.

A life of memories

Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, a Pulitzer prize-winning memoir had thought about writing down his childhood memories for years, but his biggest fear, was that no one would think his life was interesting. When his high school writing students showed interest in his stories, however, his past ‘began to assemble itself’ in his head.

Finding his writing voice was a challenge; it wasn’t something that emerged for years, until once Frank had retired. But he always had the material, ‘circling around my head and lying there in my notebooks waiting to be tapped.’

Trial and error

The Glass Castle author, Jeanette Walls wrote version after version of her memoir over 25 years, always throwing away the pages afterwards. Finally, when she felt she was truly ready, she created a new version in about six weeks. Similarly, Mary Karr says that she threw twelve hundred pages of her memoir Lit in the garbage, and broke her delete key doing constant rewriting.

The writing process

After Jim Herriot purchased his paper, he would click clack the keys of his Olivetti typewriter in half hour bursts in front of the TV in the evenings after work.

Jeanette Walls put her hard work in on the weekends, about 11 hours a day, when she was creating her draft of The Glass Castle. She then spent five years polishing the draft before submitting it for publication. Walls writing advice is simple: “Just sit down and write. Tell the story from beginning to end. Read it out loud. It takes a lot of work to seem spontaneous.”

Acclaimed author of Eat, Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert makes a ‘two hour’ rule when she’s starting a book. For two hours every day she must not stand up: the idea is to sit in the chair and write. Whether or not she gets words on the page, she can’t move from the chair until the two hours is done.

Commitment

Every writer has a different way of getting their words on the page. The thing all successful writers have in common, however, is persistence, doggedness, and making their writing a priority.

Your memoir isn’t going to write itself. You’re going to have to put every single word of it in there on your own. What time are you committing to the writing process?

 
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How to write inner dialogue

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I had a question from a writer, who asked: What is the best way to show internal thinking? Your personal thoughts may differ from the conversation. Do the same rules for spoken dialogue apply to internal dialogue?

As we know, the 'rules' for spoken dialogue are these:

  • The dialogue must be important. (In other words, it must contribute to the overall plot of the story or development of the character.)

  • The dialogue must be authentic.

  • What's around the dialogue is just as important as the dialogue itself.

  • Dialogue needs to be written correctly.

It's pretty easy, then, to say that internal dialogue is going to follow similar rules to spoken dialogue.

Internal dialogue must be important

If the character's internal thoughts are different from what they are verbalizing in the dialogue, you can definitely argue that they are 'important'. The tension between what's said and unsaid contributes a lot to the tension of the plot and the development of the character.

Here's a  lovely example of this. (All the examples I'm using in this article are from Annie, a young writer, who's working on her first full length novel. The excerpts are in first person Point Of View, so it's very applicable to memoir writers who also use the first person POV.)

‘I mean, what was it like in the city?’
    I shrug. ‘Not that much different to here.’ Except for, my thought-voice corrects, the marching in the streets and the headlines on every newspaper declaring something important and the way everyone didn’t know your business.
    ‘I’m moving away first chance I get. Brisbane, maybe even Melbourne. Wouldn’t that be something else?’ She takes a small bite of her patty cake, almost wistfully.
    ‘Yeah.’ 
    We’re silent then, lost in our separate worlds. You don’t know anything important about her. And she knows just as much about you.

The internal voice can also be used to channel other people's voices, or talk to people who aren't actually in the room. Below we hear our character channelling her elder sister being bossy to her, and then apologising to her father. This is a lovely example of character development without the person even having to be in the room.

Instead of my mum’s voice, I hear Elsa’s inside my mind: You’ll be too tired later if you don’t go back to sleep, Alisha. After a while, she started giving the instructions. She didn’t realise I’d already been giving them to myself.
I pull The Encyclopedia of Australian Birdlife off the bedside table, nearly knocking my photo frame. Sorry, Dad, I apologise, setting it upright again.   

Internal dialogue must be authentic

When we think about internal dialogue being authentic, we need to be careful about how the thoughts are expressed. In these excerpts, our thirteen year old character has a very distinct internal voice. It often corrects her, or tells her to do act differently. It's almost a separate character in the story - the tough, misunderstood unhappy girl, who can't be shown to anyone else.  Below, her internal voice scolds her for nearly breaking out in tears, and sounds authentically harsh, as anyone who has ever scolded herself will know.

‘I know you won’t say it, so I will: I’m going to miss you, Alisha,’ she tells me.
    ‘Really?’ I’m sarcasm mingled with hope.
    Elsa nods. ‘And I’m sorry I never said good-bye.’
    For the first time, I truly want to believe her. She’s said what she couldn’t be bothered to yesterday – what she forgot. Why are there tears pricking the backs of your eyes? For heaven’s sake! ‘I … might miss you, too.’

When this character's internal voice is cynical, it can almost sound funny. Again, this is very authentic. We've all had that inner snarky voice say internally what we can't express in public.

‘Want to come over to my place and watch television?’ Mike asks as the bus pulls out of town. ‘It’s Thunderbirds today.’
    I don’t break my staring out the window to answer. ‘Can’t. I have chores and homework.’ 
    ‘Alisha?’
    ‘What?’
    He clears his throat slightly. ‘Um, I heard what Kathryn said about you.’
    Of course he did. 
    ‘It’s stupid. Who the heck would believe it?’

What's around the internal dialogue is as important as the dialogue itself

When we write with a very deep Point of View, so that everything on the page is seen, heard and experienced from the character's viewpoint, we are essentially privy to all the main character's thoughts and inner dialogues anyway. Below we see our character's internal surprise twice - when Elsa is already in the kitchen, and when she hugs her - even though it's not written specifically as internal dialogue. Annie could have written these two emotional responses as her character's thoughts, but if there were too many specific internal thoughts in the paragraph, the strength of all of them would be diluted. Yes, you can include too much internal dialogue!

Instead, Annie has saved the internal dialogue for the last sentence, 'But not to Mum' which is short and sharp and makes a powerful contrast with her spoken words, 'I might write to you.'

Elsa surprises both Grandpa and I by already being in the kitchen, eating breakfast, completely dressed and almost ready to leave, when we come in from the milking shed. When it’s time to say goodbye, when her suitcases and record player are once again packed in her car, I surprise myself by hugging her before she hugs me. ‘I might write to you,’ I whisper. But not to Mum. 

Dialogue needs to be written correctly

First, distinguish between the exact words that are thought, versus the gist of the thought of the character. 

I thought that Elsa might know what I was talking about.
I thought, Elsa might know what I'm talking about.

See the 'that' in the first example? That means it's not internal dialogue anymore, so you don't have to worry about how to format it as such. The only thing that gets formatted as internal dialogue are the exact words that are thought by the character.

A complete phrase or sentence of words which are said internally is often written in italics with no speech marks.

But not to Mum.
Of course he did.

For heaven's sake.

If the words are written with speech tags, they may either be in italics, or using speech marks, but not both. 

It’s as good a time as any for breakfast, I decide, wrapping a blanket around my shoulders as I walk to the kitchen.
'Well, that's a surprise', I think, as I see Elsa in the kitchen

 
 

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My family and friends won't read my book

My family won't read my book

You've spent months, even years, working on your book. You've invested your time, your money and your emotions into your manuscript. It's your baby: at least, you love it nearly as much as your own children.

You send it away to a publisher, or even hit 'publish' yourself, and sit back with a sigh of relief, and a tingling sense of anticipation: what are your family and friends going to think when they read it?

Um, sorry to burst your bubble. Those family and those friends? They almost certainly aren't going to read it.

They'll congratulate you, sure. They'll say, "Oh well done - great work on the book," when they see you at family functions, and then, "So, when's lunch?"

Or they might do this: "So, how's your book going?" Listen for approximately 2.5 seconds and then cut in: "I've been writing something too... let me tell you about it." Or, "I've got plans to write a book one day. I've got the story in my mind. It's going to be really, really good."

Generally, what they won't do is read your book. I've heard it time and time again, and I've experienced it myself. So if you're looking to your family and your friends to be your biggest writing fans, you're going to be sorely disappointed. 

Why won't they read it?

Why is it so very difficult for our friends and family to be keen about our work? There are a few reasons. A simple one may be that they just don't like books or reading, or they don't enjoy the genre you're writing. They might only read a thriller or a sci-fi murder mystery, and never YA romance or memoir, or whatever the style of book is that you've poured your heart into.

A more complicated reason may be that they are nervous. There's a risk involved whenever someone we know does something out of the box. What if we don't like it? What are we going to say then? There's nothing more embarrassing than picking up your friend's book, finding out that they can't write for beans, and then having to pretend to be nice about it.

Even more complicated is getting past the tricky dynamics that make up every relationship and family system. Subconsciously we all know our place in our social setting, and we know the place of the other people in it too. When people do something unexpected, like suddenly excel, or achieve a new level, or come to the forefront of people's attention, it can upset our social balance. We don't know how to manage the new dynamics, and so we find it easier to completely ignore the achievement - or, sometimes, even talk it down.

If you've written a memoir, family and friends might perhaps be more likely to read it, but only because they're curious about what you've said about them. The rest will (probably) be about judging the way you perceive the world.

What are you supposed to do?

If your friends and family don't read your book - and they almost certainly won't - you can waste a lot of energy getting worried about it, becoming bitter and resentful, and creating barriers that don't need to be there.

Simply accepting that the vast majority of your family and acquaintances will never, ever read your book is the smartest and most peaceful way to live your writerly life. You get to focus on your writing rather than picking fights, and when someone does read your work, and tells you they like it, it's like having chocolate cake for breakfast... absolutely fantastic.

Here's the take home message: don't look to the people you know to affirm your writing or your abilities as a writer. They won't. Sometimes, they can't. Instead, accept yourself as a writer, and enjoy it when you find an audience who appreciates your work. (Also, when your writing takes off and people start to read it, your family and friends will quickly jump on that bandwagon, and you'll be able to smugly say in your mind, 'See? You should have read it first.')

 

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