Tuesday, January 14, 2014

IS IT A SHORT STORY OR A MEMOIR? Expanding or Contracting a Great Idea.

I have a story that's been running around in my mind, in my heart and on my computer for several years. Three or four years ago I screwed up my courage enough to share it at the local writers group Open Mike Night.  I had had to cut it down to 5 minutes after I arrived at the meeting. Not knowing that The Write Group has a strict time limit before I arrived,  I edited out what I could. It still went 8 minutes, but they didn't cut me off. That was when I knew that this story was something special.

I've written three or four more versions of the story since then. I've committed myself to getting it to a publisher this year, or possibly self publishing it, but now I am in a quandary. Every time I re-approach it, I find another part of the story that begs for more detail.  Do I simply breeze over the Spanish Civil War by mentioning a few of the more famous battles, or do I provide one or two in-depth scenes, introducing specific characters and revealing the true horrors of life in that time and in that space? Should I provide my readers with a clear picture of the dangers and deprivations of homesteading in the Big Bend region of Washington Territory in the 1880s, or simply pass it by with "She had homesteaded in Western Washington when she was a girl..."?

Will readers really care to be pulled into a Victorian living room to watch me cutting out paper dolls and listening to family stories? Do they want to know how I met my husband?

A few of my readers will be all too familiar with the dreadful and delightful details. Others will not have a clue. Is it my job to tell the story to those who know the setting and some of the characters, or is my mission to reveal an entire set of worlds to unknown readers who have never hear of Catalonia or Washington Territory?

Yesterday, between reading "Character", "Plot", "Dialogue" and "Set Design" in Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott, I delved into Auntie Kate by Katharine Garford Thomas, a distant cousin. I located my - as yet unread - copy of History of Catalonia by Jaume Sobrequés i Callicó.

Anne Lamott is advising me to tell more: to let my readers get to really know my characters. I like this idea. I'd love everyone to know Grandmother Arny  and Uncle Vin and Big Lina and all the rest of us. But is it too much?

If the story worked so well in 8 minutes, will I spoil it by making it 8 hours long? Or will I open the hearts and minds of my readers to events they never knew of, and to truths they have not discerned?

I'd love to hear from you, to know what you think.

Meanwhile, I'll keep reading Ann's book and skim through the history book, and maybe see if I can talk with a relative who crossed the steep mountain passes from Spain to Toulouse, France or Skype with a family member who was there, on the docks in Le Harve in 1939.

I really would appreciate your thoughts on this.


  1. Nancy - I wouId follow your instinct - write more if that is what your instinct is telling you. I would think getting as much detail/information in now would be helpful for seeing what is really flowing together well and what is not. Then when you do one of your last edits I would think it would be easier to delete "unwanted/unneeded" passages rather than trying to add.

    Satisfy yourself first. If you end up with a full length novel/memoir great! A full length memoir can always be culled back into a short story later if you don't like the end result.

    When you are near the end, I would also suggest having a third party read it, someone who is not connected/knows nothing about it. See if it grips them, more detail, less detail, etc..

    Just thoughts for you to ponder. Good luck and Happy writing! - Michelle

  2. Sage advice. Being a naturalist, I tend to go with my instincts. Thank you for commenting. I need to hear voices from potential readers, not just from my own mind.

  3. Hi Nancy,

    Its so heartening to feel the emotions that you are going through. What you have is a great problem! You should definitely write all that you can about everything that you want to. Then make ruthless decisions on what stays and what goes as you identify who the characters actually are and what they actually need to do to move the story forward. I am going through the same issues with my Professor's book and a home I'm designing for my parents. And I have come to realize the process of creativity is universal - you need to have a big block of material that has everything before you chip away carefully to reveal the masterpiece within.

    All the very best and as always, I'm inspired by you.

  4. So, Maddie, being a writer is more like being a sculptor, than a painter. Ann Lamott speaks of painting some corners of your story over and over until you get them right. But I like your image of starting with the big huge pile, and carving away what is no part of the story: allowing it to reveal itself. Thank you so much Maddy.