I get many emails asking about writing, in response to the popular posts I’ve written about writing. Recently Shawnee M. Deck wrote in asking about writing ones life story.
I was immediately appalled by my lack of ability to put down on paper the words that seem to make everyone laugh whenever I tell my stories.
This is common. Spoken language and written language work differently. The skills needed to tell a good story in one do not necessarily transfer to the other. Our ears are more forgiving than our eyes. When listening, we can use people’s tone, pace and volume to get more information about what they are saying. When reading, we get none of that information. The words have to stand alone. It takes more skill to keep people’s attention in writing than in speaking.
Some writers do voice to text transcriptions, talking into a microphone and having software convert it to text. Give it a try. If that works for you as a way to get a draft down, go with it. But know that it will need heavy revising to appear like good writing to a reader.
Should I leave a lot of the grammar errors to my editor? What should I expect from my editor in general?
The more you know the better, but yes, any copyeditor should be your grammar expert. Editors come in two flavors: copyeditors and development editors. The former will correct your grammar and give you feedback on sentences, paragraphs and low level writing. The later, which is harder to find, is someone who can give you guidance on the overall direction, approach and voice of the book. Sometimes you can find one person who does both. Publishers sometimes have a third kind called acquisitions editors who find and negotiate with authors to sign book deals, but are often less involved in the process afterwards.
What format would you most suggest? Organized by subjects categorically? Organized chronologically? For now, I’m just getting the chapters down based on my outline.
There’s no right answer. A good book can use any of these methods, provided the writer uses the one they choose well. For now, I’d agree – it doesn’t matter. Just get your stories down. When you have a complete first draft, you can come back and change your mind about how it’s organized. If you plan for a second and third draft, which you should, you can happily postpone sorting out questions of form or structure. An outline helps get the first draft down, but there’s no law requiring your second draft uses the same outline.
Should I buy a lot of books (other than yours) and spend a lot of time researching how to write “memoirs” or should I spend a lot more time just writing.
The answer is both. You need to write and get feedback, and read and take notes (What worked in a book? What didn’t? Why?). You can also read many more hours a day than you can write (even pro writers don’t spent more than a handful of hours a day creating new work). If you read books related to what you are writing about, or in the same style, it will inform you of what you want to aim for, as well as avoid. As far as memoirs, check out Joan Didion, Ted Conover, Annie Dillard, Loren Eisley or any book in the Best American Essays series (there’s one for each year for at least the last decade). Most of the essays are memoirs or non-fiction, giving you a sampler pack of writers you might want to study.