Memoir Writing Extra – Keep a Log

I can’t imagine how I forgot this step in the writing process, but I did. Perhaps because it’s like breathing for me.

As you write, edit, rewrite, suffer and curse, keep a log.

Call it a writer’s journal, a dairy, a writing companion. Whatever. Just do it.

I do two things:

First, I keep – and have kept for years – a Writer’s Journal in which I record overall how things are going. Problems, issues, solutions. What’s working, what’s not.

clip-books-stacked

Clipping books from my memoir project stack up 18 inches high.

From time to time, I actually go back and consult this, but mostly I don’t. The value comes from recording my thoughts. That seems to inspire other subconscious thinking and, quite frankly, imprints things in my memory.

I don’t write in it every day. More often, I get to it every three or four days, but I almost never let it go for more than 10 days.

Here is an entry from March of this year as I launched a rewrite of my memoir, HIDDEN WAR: A Memoir of America’s Secret Crusade in Laos. Note that I was calling it “Hotel Constellation” then.

3/7/2016 MON ==
Key questions as I start the rewrite of Hotel Constellation:
  • How extensively do I rewrite? Reorganize the whole thing? Or shuffle a few things around. Fact is, I feel finished with the project. I don’t want to do more. … Decision: Rewrite as much as necessary; consult all feedback.
  • What do I do with the Viet-Nam war background chapter? Some say move it because it disrupts the flow; others say it’s fine. I agree with those who argue the flow is interrupted. I will make it a Foreward, but with a title like “In the Beginning.”
  • How do I handle the Lao names? I refuse to have two interruptions before the story starts. Decision: On the first occurrence of a Lao name, add the “About the Lao Language” as a long footnote; add a list of the Lao names and their pronunciations at the end of the book.

Second, for every project, I keep a digital log or notes file (often with a paper companion) of daily progress, notes and reminders. Regardless of what I label the file, several kinds of things end up in my logs:

  1. Word counts by chapters. I’m a progress-oriented guy, and I like to keep track of where I am.
  2. Reminders of problems or questions that I have encountered. This is stuff I don’t need, or want, to address immediately, but I also don’t want to finish the project without taking care of them.
  3. Reader feedback. It’s like a reminder, but sometimes my beta readers make general comments that can’t just be taken care of all at once. Again, I don’t want to forget.
  4. Miscellaneous research. In my current project – a fictional adventure with the working title, “The Mark of the Spider” – I researched all the creepy crawly stuff that lives in Borneo, where part of the action takes place. I keep this list in my “Demon1 Rewrite Notes” file.
  5. Versioning. Adhering to the principle that you never throw anything away because you never know when you’ll need it, every time I write a draft or go back and change the thread of the plot, I create a new version (1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc.) of the manuscript. I also describe very briefly what is different from the previous version. It looks like this in my notes file:
    1.0 — Rewrite through Ch. 27
    1.1 — Incorporates Writers Group feedback on Ch. 1-3 plus DLH changes Ch. 25-28
  6. Rough drafts of dialogue, plot. Here’s a sample from”The Mark of the Spider” that I did not use:
The first time I awoke — naked, feverish, stinking of blood and my own filth — I felt the pain in my face, like some mad dentist had yanked all my teeth with a dirty pliers and no painkiller.
It was dark, the blackest kind of dark, found far from the cities, deep in the jungle. I lay on a rough wooden floor, atop a thin mat of woven bamboo. Knots in the bamboo poked my skin when I tried to roll off my back. The pain forced me back, and I blacked out.

I never delete things from a log file. Sometimes, I find I want to go back and see if I encountered a problem before and whether I addressed it. In short, I don’t want to repeat work. Instead of deleting, I use the strikethrough font. It tells me it’s done.

Both my Writer’s Journal and my log are different from my continuity files. The latter are reference files, meticulously kept but rarely consulted.

The logs are daily, working documents that help keep me on track. Two or three hundred pages into a five hundred page project, I need a place to help my memory. (As a reporter writing stories daily, I learned NOT to keep notes in my head. Once I wrote the story, I purged the memory. Anything I felt I might need later went into a note or a file. So this is old habit for me.)

The writer’s journal records thoughts about a project looking down from far above.

I could not do without any of them.

Another Flipboard Citation for Memoir Writing

On Monday – yes, I’m slow getting around to this – Flipboard selected Memoir Writing: No. 9 It’s Time to Write as one of its cover stories.

Here’s how it looked:

flipboard_memoir-9The photo is a snapshot of two pages from one of my clipping books. It shows other pix of ambush victims in Laos in the early 1970s.

I noted in the post that these and other photos were sufficient inspiration to try to write a memoir of that period. The product, of course, is HIDDEN WAR: A Memoir of America’s Secret Crusade in Laos, an unpublished but still aspiring book.

Memoir Writing: #9 It’s Time to Write

The research and prep work are done.

You’ve got your outline.

Now you write.

You can start anywhere you like, but I think the beginning is a better place than most. I don’t mean the day you were born. I mean the beginning you chose in your outline. ;INK

This a memoir, not an autobiography. An autobiography covers your entire life and really does start at the very beginning. Your memoir is focusing on part of your life.

 

inside-clip-book

One of my clipping books: Reasons to write.

Use all your senses to tell your story. How you felt. Sure. But what did you see? Hear? Smell?

Keep your eye on the conflict. If this was important enough to write about, identify the conflict and keep it in mind, and on the page.

Wrap it up with a satisfying ending. Doesn’t have to be happy. But it has to address and resolve the conflict somehow.

Along the way, use quotations. Journal entries. Letters. News clippings.

Given my decades as a journalist writing every day and several years of writing 2,000 words of fiction a day, I thought I could knock out a first draft of a 75,000-word manuscript in two months with a little weekend work. Wrong. It took five months.

Be flexible about your deadlines, but by all means set a goal for yourself.

After you finish, go back and revise it. Start to finish. Spellcheck. Grammar check. Does everything make sense? Is everything consistent? Did you have any questions? If you did, you can bet your readers will, too. So answer them.

After your first revision, pass it around to anyone who will read it. Get real reader feedback. You don’t have to take the advice you get, but you should hear it and consider it. Someone cared enough to make suggestions; they deserve a respectful hearing.

I was lucky enough to have more than a dozen people – family, friends and my writers group – review all or parts of the memoir. After the first revised draft, I did two complete rewrites with uncounted numbers of revisions.

So you should plan to rewrite and repeat. Expect it to take a while.

Have fun. Life is short. Good luck.