Writing memoirs has become a popular trend. When I was publishing books for other authors, it seemed like most of my inquiries came from people wanting to write their memoirs. My advice today is the same as what I gave back then. Ask yourself what is it about your life story that’s so compelling that other people would want to read it. It’s a question you need to answer honestly before proceeding any further.
Our life’s journey is certainly interesting to us. After all, we’re the star of our own show, but I want to be brutally honest here. No one, other than your immediate family, and perhaps your closest friends, really cares about how wonderful your spouse is or how smart your kids are. Nor does anyone care about the details of everything you did on that cruise to Hawaii. So, the first thing you need to do is to check your ego at the door.
Have you overcome an obstacle that was beyond the ordinary? For instance, have you survived a violent crime? Did you survive an accident or horrible disease that would have been fatal to most people? Have you traveled to some faraway, exotic destination, such as Antarctica, which few will ever see? Were you ever a first responder? Were you ever in showbiz? Have you had some other extraordinary life experience which few people ever will? Most importantly, would your story be an inspiration to others? If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then perhaps you should give some thought to writing a memoir.
People read books because they want to be entertained, inspired, or because they want to learn something new. In other words, there has to be something in it for the reader. Your memoir should be a story that inspires others, and perhaps changes people’s lives for the better.
In my earlier post, Knowing When to Quit, Part One, I talked about redundancy. This time I’ll discuss another way to overwork a story. Creating over the top scenarios or plot lines which don’t connect well with the earlier story. This can be especially problematic when you’re writing a series. There simply comes a point when your story, even if it’s a series, has to end. Otherwise it may become absurd or even bizarre.
I’ll use an example familiar to most of us. Star Trek.
I grew up watching the original Star Trek. The characters, human and alien, were compelling and believable; so much so that they became iconic. However, by the third season, the writers seemed to be running out of ideas. The ridiculous storylines in some of the episodes hurt the integrity of the series. NBC then cancelled the show. After that it went into syndication where its following grew.
The movies started ten years later. The original characters were back. However, they were older and they’d changed over time. This kept them interesting. The final original cast film, Star Trek The Undiscovered Country, completed their storyline with a well thought out ending. In the meantime, three new television series, Star Trek the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, created a plethora of interesting new characters with plenty of potential for exciting new stories. They were followed by a series of movies featuring the Next Generation cast.
Sadly, it was all lost for me with Star Trek Enterprise, and the current movie series. Enterprise, the fifth TV series, was a prequel. And prequels, regardless of the genre, can be problematic. To me, it was lackluster, and I soon lost interest. The new movies, also prequels, featured younger versions of the original characters. They too were disappointing. The stories take place in a parallel universe, so all the interesting back-stories established in the original series were gone. I found it way too confusing, and it certainly wasn’t the Star Trek I’d known and loved for decades.
This is what happens when you run out of ideas. You lose the integrity of your story, and you risk losing your following. As storytellers, the two hardest words for us to write are, “The End,” but write them we must, as all stories must end. Otherwise, in the words on my college painting professor, you really do turn your work into mud.
People ask me if I write under my real name, or a pen name. I actually write under both. There are many reasons why some authors choose to write under pen names.
The author wishes to keep his or her privacy.
The author writes controversial or sensitive subject matter, such as erotica.
There is, by coincidence, another author with the same name, or a similar name.
The author has a name that is confusing, hard to pronounce, or with an unusual spelling.
The author writes in more than one genre, and wishes to build a separate brand for each.
The latter two reasons apply to me.
When I wrote my first book, Anna’s Kitchen, I thought my legal name, Gayle Martin, was perhaps too common. So, I included my maiden name, Homes. However, there was a problem. Before I was married to Mr. Martin, I spent my life having both a first and a last name with unusual spellings. Gayle Homes. I was constantly having to spell my name for people, and they were still getting my name wrong. They all thought I was, “Gail Holmes,” and no, it didn’t exactly do wonders for my self-esteem.
Once Anna’s Kitchen was published, I realized that the troubles of the past had come back to haunt me. The name, Gayle Homes, with or without, Martin, simply left too big of a margin for error for a keyword search. Had I not picked up the name, Martin, along my life’s journey, I would have used a pen name from the get-go. That said, we learn from our mistakes. So when I started publishing my Luke and Jenny series, I dropped the name Homes and published as Gayle Martin. It worked, and I successfully built my brand as a children’s book author. Then came the next problem.
why I switched to a pen name
As much as I loved my Luke and Jenny books, I wanted to branch out into the romance genre. Most readers in this genre expect some steamy love scenes. However, this would present a real problem if young Luke and Jenny fans, or their parents, bought my newer books, thinking they too were written for younger readers. So, I created a pen name, Marina Martindale, which is simply a play on my middle name, Marie, and my last name, Martin.
Ultimately, it’s up to each author to decide whether or not to write under a pen name. If you opt to do so, I highly recommend creating one that’s easy to spell, easy to pronounce, and memorable.
It seems like I spend so much time thinking about the good guys that I forget the bad guy needs love too. Plot lines revolve around conflict. So, there must be a source behind that conflict. And that would be the antagonist. More commonly known as the villain.
There are different approaches to creating a villain. One is to have him or her truly evil and completely irredeemable. Think Count Dracula. Your readers will hate him and root for the good guys to wipe him out. This is the villain you can kill off at the end of the story, and leave your readers feeling relieved and satisfied.
A more interesting approach is to create a conflicted villain. Instead of Count Dracula, you have Barnabas Collins, the reluctant vampire from Dark Shadows. Barnabas had been a good guy until a witch placed a vampire curse him. This leaves him despising what he’s become. I think of Barnabas as a “hero-villain.” He’s an antagonist we can root for. We want to see him cured of his affliction and end up with the girl. In the interim, however, he’ll wreak plenty of havoc.
Some storytellers like to take chances and have their hero go bad. Interesting approach, but it can be tricky. If you’re going to attempt it, your character will need plenty of redeeming qualities. If not, your readers won’t make a connection, and they won’t root for him or her. By the end of the story he or she will have to renounce all the bad things they did earlier. They must also be willing to make up for the sins of the past. If not, your readers won’t be satisfied with the ending, assuming they stayed with your story until the end.
Another way to conclude your story would be to end a tragedy with a tragedy. This works well when your villain has done things that simply can’t be walked away from. At the end of the original Star Wars saga, Darth Vader renounces the emperor and turns away from the dark side of the force. He has to sacrifice his own life in order to save Luke. This made a dramatic, and satisfying, end of the conflict.
So there you have it. With a little imagination, and a few character quirks, you can create interesting and memorable villains who’ll keep your readers engaged. And that’s what good storytelling is all about.
From time to time I get emails from other authors announcing their latest book, including one from someone who’s been writing novels longer than I have. It had the usual announcement, along with the book cover and a description. The description, however, was problematic. It was at least five hundred words and it described the entire plot. Once I finished reading it I had no incentive to buy the book. I knew the story from start to finish.
One of my mentors taught me to write descriptions of ten to one hundred words, and nothing longer. Over time I’ve discovered that a fifty to one hundred word description works nicely. I also write teasers, not plot summaries. The whole idea of a book description is to give a potential reader a general idea of what the story is about. It should also entice them to read more. In other words, it’s ad copy.
Cassie Palmer’s world is shattered when a car crash leaves her hospitalized and fighting for her life. Her husband, Jeremy, begins his own frightening journey when he meets Denise, one of Cassie’s nurses. Denise seems familiar, but while he may no longer remember her, she has neither forgiven nor forgotten how he jilted her, years before. Denise seeks revenge and Jeremy soon vanishes under mysterious circumstances, leaving his grieving wife behind. As Cassie struggles to recover her life will take another strange turn, when an unexpected visitor reveals that things are not as they appear.
Rachel Bennett may have attended her ten-year high school reunion on a whim, but fate intervened once she saw Shane MacLeod. No longer the shy, gawky teenager she remembered, Shane has matured into a handsome and successful man, but her perfect evening ends when another man from her past suddenly reappears. Craig Walker had been her mentor until he became jealous of her talent and success. Now he intends to either have her, or destroy her at all costs. As Rachel’s family pressures her to take Craig to court, she can no longer ignore her nagging feeling that a tragedy is about to strike.
I was an art major in college, and I’ll always remember one of my painting professors said.
“Every painter needs to have someone standing behind him to shoot him when he’s done. Otherwise, he’ll overwork the painting and turn it into mud.”
It’s extremely difficult for us as artists to see our work objectively enough to know when it’s finished. And once we realize we’ve overworked something, it may be too late to salvage it. Fortunately, when it comes to writing, there are warning signs that we can look for. One would be redundancy. I’ll use my Marina Martindale novel, The Deception, to illustrate my point.
I was near the end of the story. I’d resolved the main conflict. But as I was tying up remaining the loose ends I suddenly discovered a huge opening for one of the antagonists to go after the protagonist a second time. This left me with two options. One was to write a sequel. Tempting thought, as I loved my cast of characters. However, in this instance, the conflict would have been virtually the same as the conflict in the first book, thus making sequel redundant. In other words, it would have been a boring, “been there, done that,” story. So, rather than waste my time, and my reader’s time, with a bad sequel, I wrote a definitive ending and killed off the antagonist, ending the feud once and for all.
Does your story feel like it’s getting stale? If so, go back and look at your conflict. If it keeps repeating itself, or if the results of your character’s choices are always the same, it may be that your story has become too redundant.
Anna’s Kitchen was my very first book. I completely produced and published it on my own. I think every author should be required do this at least once. It’s an incredible learning experience. It makes us extremely aware of just how much hard work goes into publishing a book, and why teamwork is so necessary.
Because I was doing it all myself, I had no one to edit or proofread for me. So, I used my spell checker. Big mistake, I know. It’s how I learned, the hard way, that every author must have an editor.
Once the book was printed I found all kinds of errors. One of my friends came across one in a gravy recipe he thought was particularly amusing. It said, “Add two tablespoons of fate.” He laughed and laughed. Then he asked me if it meant that we were supposed to pray over the gravy as it was being prepared. Now mind you, that’s not a bad idea. I pray over the little everyday things in life much more than the big things. In this case, however, it was a typo that the spell checker had missed. The word, “fate” was spelled correctly. But what it should have read was, “add two tablespoons of fat.”
Yes, you need a couple tablespoons of fat if you’re making gravy. However, when it comes to life in general, you might need to add two tablespoons of fate. Just saying.
It happens to all of us at one time or another. We run into a proverbial brick wall and suddenly find ourselves unable to come up with something to write about. Ugh!
Creativity is a funny thing. We can’t always turn it on and off whenever we choose. This can be particularly frustrating for fiction writers who have to juggle their writing time between jobs and families.
Sometimes switching gears and writing about another topic can help. I have friends who work on two or three different books at the same time. If they get stuck on one, they simply set it aside and work on another one. However, if that doesn’t work, or, if you’re like me, and you only work on one story at a time, then try stepping away from the computer. Go do a project that’s been on your “honey do” list for too long. Those nagging issues really can affect your creativity.
If that doesn’t help, then take a break and do something you enjoy. Bake cookies. Play a round of golf. Go to a movie, or a ball game. Take a day trip somewhere. Read a book you haven’t had time to read. Call a friend or relative you haven’t spoken to in awhile. Taking a time out and doing something you enjoy gives your mind a chance to focus on other things. It also gives your creative muse a rest. Don’t worry about your story. It’ll come back. And when it does, you can pick up where you left off.
I recall once having an interesting chat with a fellow author at a writer’s convention. He was telling me about another writer he knew who apparently got into serious trouble with Paramount. This other writer had allegedly written a very adult oriented Star Trek story, and Paramount had apparently taken issue with the way he used their characters.
As I recall, Star Trek conventions got started so the fans, or Trekkies, as they called themselves, could share their fan stories. However, it was a different time. Back then fanfiction authors wrote with pen and paper and they kept their stories in their notebooks. Self publishing didn’t exist. There was no Internet, no blogs, no Kindle. (I know. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?)
Times have indeed changed. Today a fan writer can write his or her own Star Trek story in their blog or post it on a fan forum. Their motive may be sincere. However, their devotion to their favorite TV show could, potentially, put them in legal hot water. I’m not an attorney, nor am I giving legal advice. That said, it is common knowledge that the rights to any artistic creation, including works of fiction, belong to the person or persons who created it.
I write my own unique stories with my own characters. However, if I were to include someone else’s character, for whatever reason, I would get their permission first. It’s only common courtesy. It could also be an opportunity for me to reach out and connect with another author. Most importantly, it would save me the worry of possibly getting a nasty letter from someone’s attorney.
For more information on copyright law, or if you have questions or concerns about something you may be writing, or may have published, please consult with a copyright attorney.
Once upon a time, my friends and I were soap opera junkies. We loved our soaps. I taped my favorite soap everyday for years. How times have changed. I don’t watch soaps anymore, and neither do any of my friends. We stopped watching them years ago. I don’t think it’s our age. Both of my grandmothers watched their favorite soaps when they were well into their eighties. I think it has to do with the fact that today’s soap operas are so poorly written.
Soap operas used to be about love and romance. Then one day the producers decided they wanted younger, more hip audiences. As a result, the writers began writing outrageous story lines. Demonic possessions. Frozen cities. Characters buried alive. UFOs. Good plot lines for The X Files, but certainly not what we wanted to see on Days of Our Lives.
Those of us who write romantic fiction know basic plot structure revolves around conflict. For many years, soap operas relied on these classic plot lines which consistently worked and kept viewers watching.
The Romantic Triangle
Boy meets girl. They fall in madly love. However, another girl is in love with the same boy, and she won’t go quietly into the night. She instead plots and schemes, relentlessly, to break them up, thus becoming, “The Girl We Love to Hate.”
Extramarital Affairs and Illegitimate Children.
The occasional side effect of the romantic triangle. Soap opera writers kept audiences riveted for years wondering when an unsuspecting husband, or ex husband, would finally discover that his son or daughter actually wasn’t his son or daughter.
Long Lost Half Siblings.
Boy meets girl. It’s love at first sight, but one of their mothers is dead set against their relationship. She does everything in her power to break them up, and soon the truth comes out. Years ago, Mom had an affair with the father of her child’s love interest. This means they’re half brother and sister. Fortunately, this always comes out before the romance is consummated.
Sometimes the writers will create a plot twist. The other mother will come forward later on and say no, so and so wasn’t her child’s father after all. Therefore, they were never half siblings. However, this only happens after the would-be lovers have moved on to other relationships. The fun never stops.
The Big Frame-Up
From time to time a villain has to be killed off, so why not frame a favorite character for a crime they didn’t commit? Of course, they would eventually be found innocent, but not until they’d gone on trial, been convicted and ended up in prison. This plot line can be easily adapted to 21st century technology by having the real killer tamper with the DNA test results.
Catastrophic diseases or injuries.
Hodgkin’s Disease. Brain tumors. Comas. High risk pregnancies. All were common soap opera maladies. Tripping over a waste basket could cause a miscarriage, and how many times did a favorite character go blind or deaf? Luckily, in Soap Opera Land, everyone recovers, only to be struck down with another malady a few years later. However, soap opera characters are immune to one disease. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
A rare medical condition in the real world. At one time, however, it was quite common on soaps. Having a favorite character lose his or her memory and wander off somewhere, with everyone else thinking they were dead, made for great soap opera watching.
Returning from the dead
A favorite character is involved in a plane crash or similar event. He or she is missing and presumed dead, but the body is never found. The character leaves the show, only to return later, oftentimes with another actor assuming the role.
This plot line has many possibilities. The character may be recovering from the aforementioned amnesia. Or maybe not. Either way, the memories will eventually return. The other scenario is when the character returns after being held captive somewhere. Regardless of the circumstances, no one ever makes it home until after their spouse or lover has found someone else.
And there you have it. Any romance writer worth his or her salt knows such stories of star-crossed lovers have worked since Romeo and Juliet, and they work just as well today. I use variations of them in my Marina Martindale romance novels, and my readers tell me they can’t put my books down.