Life Writing

30 April, 2021 § Leave a comment

When someone is about to embark on a writing journey, they often do so because they want to document their memories, or those of someone close to them. Why? Either for posterity or to share a fascinating period of time or to distribute to family now and in the future to give a glimpse of the times they lived through.

In fact, life writing, or memoir, can be one of the best places to start your writing practice. You don’t need to worry about imagination, or being creative, or deciding what genre or style to write in … you simply write from memory. You write the life you know, have experienced and can talk reliably about. Who else is an expert on your life more than you?

If you are one of those organised people who has kept a diary for all or part of your life, your raw material is easily accessible! The rest of us have to rely on memory, and we know how unreliable that can be.

Writing about a period of your life can be entertaining, cathartic, difficult, humorous, and everything in between.

Personally, I avoided writing memoir pieces for two reasons. Firstly my memory is limited: a lot of my life is blank and I rely on photographs much of the time to recall certain things. For those times I don’t have a physical image, I have an emotional or mental image in mind. Secondly, it can be painful bringing back some memories and life events. They say not to dwell on the past but at some point we all revisit it to reminisce or remember.

If you’re intending to publish your memoir, then making it easy for the reader to engage in your story is paramount. In all writing, you need to find a way to let the reader into what’s in your mind that you are trying to share or replicate for them. How you do that is through traditional story-telling techniques.

In memoir, perhaps one of the best methods is to employ the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach.

When writing a piece, aim to recollect as much sensory detail as you can.

  • What season of the year was it? What time of day? Example, ” Wearing my shiny new black shoes, I skipped through the freshly fallen leaves that were all tones of yellow, brown and orange: I felt them crunch under my foot.” That gives you the sense this piece takes place around Autumn/Fall. Much better for the reader than saying, “it was autumn.”
  • Think about the feelings you had at the time and where you felt it in your body. “I knew I did wrong and my throat started to constrict, my tummy tightened and my chest felt like it would fall in on itself. I hid my hands behind my back: I knew I was in for the Principal’s cane.” That has more import for the reader than “I was scared going to the Principal’s office because I knew I’d get the cane.”
  • Which of your senses were involved? Was there a certain smell, aroma or scent? Were there noises around that were distinctive like “the rumble of an approaching locomotive”? Could you taste something? How about the physical feel of something, example, “the yellowing linen on Grandma’s table was crisp and standing to attention. I ran my hands over the tablecloth and it was smooth – so stiff I didn’t dare crinkle it.” Sounds, scents and tactile memories are keys to readers memories and imagination. You can use music to underline a period of time: “and I heard ‘Let It Be’ by the Beatles playing in the background” puts the memory around 1970 and will probably have your reader singing the words in their head.
  • In your memory piece, were other people involved? Who was there? What role did they play? How did you feel about those people? How did you feel about them being there? Alluding to them or describing them and the impact of the other people being there brings your reader in as well.
  • Did anything change, alter or shift during this period? Was it a pivotal moment in some way?

Memoir or life writing is more than the simple retelling of events. The more visceral you can make the experience, the more you can engage your reader to really make them feel as though they are in the moment with you/your character.

Use emotion, sensory cues and lots of showing (not telling) to bring this life-writing alive.

Make your reader want to turn the page to find out more.

memoir and life writing
Photos make wonderful memory prompts
This article was inspired by an online webinar presentation led by Dr Alison Daniell on the topic of Life Writing, held by Southampton University.
Photo credit: jarmoluk @ Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/photos-hands-hold-old-256887/

Entering Writing Competitions

26 April, 2021 § Leave a comment

Why enter a writing competition?

Entering a writing competition forces you to write. It gives you a deadline and, hopefully, a topic or theme. And an impending deadline sure helps to focus the mind! Procrastination thieves are everywhere – if you’re like a lot of writers or aspiring writers then you might be inclined to put things off – you’ll write after … the washing is done, the shopping is done, you polish the car … you get the idea. A whole lot of perfunctory activities suddenly come into into prominence when you know you need to sit down to a blank page.

One of the big reasons people often enter writing competitions is the chance to compare your idea of how well you write to how others receive your writing. If your work gets through to the finalist round or you win a prize then that is confirmation of you as a writer. Don’t dismiss the size of competition or how many words you wrote – you made a mark and the judges chose what you wrote. Give yourself a pat on the back, bask in the glow of achievement and set your sights on writing the next entry.

How to win a writing competition?

Well, obviously, if there were a formula we’d all be winning and there’d really be non competition!

Surprisingly though, a lot of writers knock themselves out of contention before they even get to be read.

1. Firstly, you have to enter to win. Sounds simple enough but how many times have you printed out the entry form with the Terms and Conditions and lost them in the detritus of daily living, only to find them when the deadline has passed? Oh. It’s just me then? Or, you talk yourself out of actually writing by listening to that Negative Nancy in your noggin – tell her to take a hike until you’re done writing. Set up a ‘Competiton’ folder both on your computer and your desk to keep details of competitions in so you don’t lose them. I put them in deadline-date order.

2. Once you have the deadline date, the next thing to do is to pencil that in your diary – even if you’re just thinking about it. (If you are a Master Procrastinator, put the date a couple of weeks earlier!).

3. When you decide which comp to enter, use that end-date as the starting point to writing: calculate how many days/weeks you have along with the number of words required – schedule your writing time for that entry. Set your end date at least a week ahead so you have time to review and revise before submitting.

4. Before you start writing, read the Terms and Conditions, thoroughly. Especially note the open/close dates, word count limit, any theme, the purpose or reason for the competition that might give clues on what material is expected), format requirements, submission method eg online, email or by post. Research the organiser – that might inform you about their expectations or preferences with might give you an edge.

5. Word counts noted are usually fixed as a maximum, not suggested. Do not go over them and don’t go too far under them. If the entry states 1000 words and you send in 1001 … you’ll be thrown in the slush pile without a look-in. Note, word count often excludes Title, but check! Conversely, if you send in 250 words for a 1000 word comp, you’ll also be out. Match your entry close to the required word count but never over it.

6. Formatting is critical to follow – again, another opportunity to be eliminated. If the entry form asks for Courier 12pt single spaced and you send in 10pt Marker Felt double spaced, you’re upping the likelihood of being disqualified.

Following the Terms and Conditions of an entry is the first challenge in winning. Organisers review each entry at the beginning and cull those that don’t meet terms. In the ‘first round’ they’ll ask questions such as – has the entry submitted on time? is the layout as requested? Is the word count at or close to what’s been asked? Has the entry fee, if any, been paid? Have other conditions been met eg eligibility, theme etc? These administration actions take place up front, before your entry even has a chance of being submitted to judges.

You’d be surprised how many entries are disqualified at the first hurdle.

“But I wrote a really great story!”

Bad luck.

Adhere to the requirements – they are there for a reason. If you’re not sure about anything ask the organisers or see if their website has a set of FAQs that might help. Keep in mind that organisers get hundreds if not thousands of entries and it’s not possible to respond individually.

With the technicalities out of the way, let’s look at writing your piece.

Consider what the organisers are looking for in any entry. Then, muse how the typical writer might respond … and brainstorm alternate approaches that are a little different. Twists, quirks and unexpected entries stand out from the pack – that can be a good thing if you are on target with your entry in all other respects.

For fiction, focus on your storyline, keep your point of view consistent, along with your style and tone.

Keep the reader engaged with pace and some tension.

Do some research where necessary to make your entry as good as possible.

Write your piece as best you can. Then put it aside for a while. Go play with something else then revisit your writing entry and see if you can revise it and improve it.

Remember to edit and proofread before hitting ‘ submit’. Give yourself every opportunity to put in your best entry.

Sad to say, there are no magic methods to winning a writing competition. You need to write a good story that fits the brief and meets requirements. The number of people who fail to give themselves a fair chance by not meeting requirements, or not even submitting is surprising! Don’t be that person.

Want a handy reference to what’s in this article? I created an informative infographic to keep on your bulletin board to remind you of the key points in entering a writing competition. Grab it below.

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