TODAY WAS MY BIG DAY. I woke up nervous this morning at 4:30 AM and couldn’t go back to sleep. Finally, after being here for almost a week, it was time for me to teach! That’s why I came down here to begin with, and despite having 20+ years of experience teaching writing successfully, I still had butterflies.
My two classes and one panel were all clustered together in the final days of the conference. Today, I had two back-to-back events, a two-hour workshop called, “Binding the Whole Together: Twelve Tricks to Transform Strong Scenes into a Cohesive, Compelling Finished Book,” a workshop I’d never taught before. I developed the curriculum just for this conference by carefully deconstructing everything I did during the final edit of my 2021 memoir, The Burning Light of Two Stars.
It was a packed workshop—sold out and also packed with information. I talked for two hours straight. Half an hour later, I facilitated the online panel, “The Real Truth About Telling the Truth” with fellow memoir teachers, Debra Gwartney and Marion Roach Smith. In the minutes before we hopped online (me from San Miguel, Debra from Kauai, and Marion from New York State), we figured out that we had 70 years of memoir teaching experience between us!
Just to give you a tiny taste of my teaching today, I wanted to share some key takeaways from the first event, the “Twelve Tricks” workshop:
- Your “final edit” must be dispassionate and ruthless. The best mindset for a final edit is the willingness to give up your attachment to your story as it is. You need to be open to the possibility that there are still changes—possibly major ones—in front of you.
- Put yourself in the reader’s seat. Focus on their experience reading your book, rather than your own. Let the story wash over you. Experience its totality. Notice when you get caught up and when you skim or feel distracted. When felt essential and what was extraneous? If this weren’t your book, would you have kept reading?
- Everything should flow from your throughline. Make editorial changes based on the question: Does this beat, scene or chapter illustrate and support the throughline of my book? If the answer is no, cut it, no matter how well-written or attached you are to that vignette, story or phrase.
- Focus each scene on your protagonist’s choice points. Rather than relating your character’s growth retrospectively by reporting it to the reader, show your protagonist making active choices in real time, one after the other, to demonstrate his emotional arc.
- Identify and regularly re-evaluate your narrative threads. Touch base with them, even briefly, in each chapter. This can be a one-sentence mention or something more significant. Challenge yourself to keep your narrative threads a steady presence, even on a subliminal level. This helps create a smooth, integrated reading experience for your reader.
- Consider choosing a physical object to demonstrate your protagonist’s evolution. Consciously weave it into your book, inserting at several points throughout your book to illustrate those changes.
- Establish and move on. Once you’ve established something for the reader, move on. You don’t need to say it twice. Trust your reader to “get it” the first time. Look for repetition and ferret it out.
- Interrogate every aspect of your book. You need to be able to justify the inclusion of every chapter, scene, character, beat, verb, sentence, and word in your book. Ask yourself, “Why does this belong in my story?” Everything in your book should contribute to a cohesive reading experience. If it doesn’t, it has to go. Be ruthless.