Tag Archives: Planning writing

Writing a Memoirs ~ The Joys and Pitfalls

I have learnt a lot since I started collecting stories for writing Norman’s memoirs (See my last post ‘Thanks for the Memories’ where I describes an extraordinary 103yr old  friend of the family who passed away last week)) and thought it might be useful to pass on a few tips and be honest about my mistakes, so that you don’t fall into the same traps:

1. Decide on the right equipment before you begin. I would suggest that you need the following:

  • A good scanner for photos and mementos
  • A hard drive for back up copies
  • A good camera which will take the quality of photos you need
  • An easy to use video camera
  • A ring file or filing system to store your notes, documents and any other personal items safely so that you can easily find them

Video ~ When I began this project two years ago, compiling Norman’s memoirs, I already knew some of his story which I’d gleaned over the years, but the most useful item I purchased before I started was a flip video camera. The shop assistant in PC World suggested one, when I explained what I was doing.

‘What will you do with an audio recorder at the end of your project,’ he said helpfully. ‘You could put this video camera in your handbag and use it with family and friends.’

He has been proved right time and time again. Not only that, but it was far easier and much more fun transcribing videos of Norman sharing his stories with me that way, and one day I might edit some of them to share with you too. How special it is to have videos of him telling the story of his life, and if you are doing it for a member of your family, how lovely as a keepsake. (I have not had the courage to look at any of them since he passed away, but I will one day.)

Camera ~ As for the camera, I wished I’d bought a better camera at the start. My little digital camera was fine for the internet but not so good for publishing.

2. Keep back up copies of absolutely everything. 

Obvious, I know, but we are all very busy people and unfortunately I found myself having to go back and borrow pictures and mementos a second time, because I had forgotten to make a back up copy of everything and store it carefully, so that I could easily retrieve it. I also had to improve the quality of many of the shots. Taking photos of old photographs with a good camera was often better than scanning a tiny photo.

3. Plan how you are going to format it before you start.

Now, I decided I would format the manuscript myself, not knowing what I was getting myself into. Since I knew Microsoft Word and I wanted a document I could easily print out for Norman to read and give me valuable feedback, I spent ages laying out the document and pictures in Word first. DON’T!

Once I realised I needed better software for quality of layout and design I asked for some advice and bought Serif Software. A friend and writer did not like the software when he came to help me set up the pages and margins for me but gradually I have got to know it and quite like it. Whatever you use, remember that it takes time to get to know how to use it. It was here I realised that I did not have back up copies of everything, and, to my dismay, found transferring them from Word destroyed the quality of the images. I learnt this to my cost because I was not just around the corner from Norman to put it right, and in the end the formatting took twice as long.

4. Plan how you are going to organise the stories you collect.

Most advice on the subject suggests organising the material into themes; the major parts of the persons life, but, because Norman wanted to tell me about the whole of his life, and I was doing it predominantly for him, to give him a purpose to enjoy life in old age just that bit more and something to think about between visits, we decided to organise it chronologically. After all, at 103, it was the passing of time and his contrasting memories of as far back as WW1 to the present day which was interesting, as well as the wonderful story of his life. He was such an inspiration to elderly people too, in the way he has handled life since his 100th birthday.

5. It is a time consuming project. Be realistic about the time you have available. If it is a family member or friend of the family, as like as not you would be visiting fairly frequently anyway but this is a regular commitment. Having said that, how much more interesting your visits will be as you hear stories of the person’s past life that you didn’t know before, rather than general chit chat about the price of a loaf of bread or the weather. What wonderful memories you will have of your time together when they are gone.

6. Decide who you are writing it for.

Is it just for family and friends?

Do you aim to self publish it?

Do you hope to get a publishing company to take it on? I have not tried the major publishing houses since I was so wrapped up in the project, but advice you read is that it is extremely hard to get the memoirs of an ordinary person published, except by a Vanity publisher. There are many companies out there who could help you at a price. Look into that at an early stage in the project and budget accordingly.

7. How do you intend to illustrate it?

You have all these photos and mementos but putting photos in books adds greatly to the printing costs.

~The cheapest way to include illustrations is to have a set of a few plates of photos at intervals through the book.

~If you want a picture on every other page or

~wrapped throughout the text then the price will go up accordingly.

~Also the price of colour will treble the costs.

It pays to think ahead and manage people’s expectations. 

8. Above all treasure the moments

and if you can’t always visit when you want, share thoughts on the phone to keep the ideas flowing or better still, as I did with Norman, speak on Skype. I even videoed a story or two that way and we had a regular spot each Monday afternoon at 2pm. Sometimes one or other of us forgot, but one of us would ring up and soon we set things up and had a wonderful chat for about half an hour at a time; ones I will always remember, and next Monday at 2pm I’ll miss him very much. That is, unless there is a Skype line from up there, if he’s arrived already!

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Planning a novel – a personal experience

When I began to think of writing a novel I knew little of the plethora of advice out there for aspiring authors. I was not aware of websites, forums or magazines for writers. I knew there were creative writing course and I taught how to plan stories at work, but never considered attending a course or a conference. Maybe they were already in existence, but for me writing was an individual art. I felt alone with my pen and paper. I wrote long hand and typed it up later on my laptop. I was only allowed a laptop, unusual in those days, but I could hide it away when it was not in use, so that it didn’t offend or take up space in our small maisonette.

 I did however enrol with ‘The Writer’s Bureaux’ but unfortunately had little spare time of my own to follow the course to its end. Nevertheless I found the box of useful tools invaluable.

How did I begin planning?

The inspiration for ‘Riduna’ came to me when I was standing on the Butes overlooking Braye Bay on Alderney, thinking of my Great Grandmother Harriet. I remember saying to myself, ‘Yes, I will write the essence of your story as a tribute to your life.’ As I’ve often said since, I knew very little about the true story of my great Grandmother at that time –see ‘Family History’, my January 7th 2010 blog but my first thoughts were:

  • What was it really like for Harriet to live on Alderney in the nineteenth century when it was overrun by red-coated soldiers?
  • Who were the people she grew up with?
  • How did she learn to dance?
  • What did she do that was so terrible that she was sent away?
  • What did it feel like to leave the island of her birth?
  • Where did she go?
  • Who did she go with and in what ways did it change her life?

I suppose these questions formed the skeleton of my first story plan. Unconventional I know but there it was. The following summer I began to research, filling in background information and substance to my ‘plan.’

I didn’t write down notes on plots and subplots. I didn’t write pages on descriptions of characters, neither did I agonise over conflict and resolution.

What did I do next?

Once I had carried out substantial research I allowed the characters to speak for themselves. They flowed from my imagination sharing every element of their joy, feeling empathy for the depth of their despair, grieving, praying and sleeping with them. They filled my life until the agony of my own life’s problems took over and the story was left for quite some time in a metaphorical cupboard.

Over the next few years I returned to the novel on several occasions, each time following a visit to carry out more research. I never entirely let it go, so that when I finally had the time and the inclination to complete ‘Riduna’ I found only a few gaps in the story which I endeavoured to fill, including the story’s final chapter which I was reluctant to write. In fact I ended up writing two versions before I chose the one which I felt was the most apt, leaving the reader with closure but also giving them free reign to use their own imagination.

I was relieved, last year, when I heard another author speak at a Book Fair, saying that they too carried out little detailed plans before they began to write. They allowed the story to tell itself.

Have I learnt anything from this experience?

Yes, certainly. Since ‘Riduna’ was published I have listened to author’s speak at conferences. I have subscribed to a Writer’s magazine and read copious blogs and articles on the internet about planning and writing in general. I have listened, but I don’t like rules on the whole. Having said that I know that I have taken on board some of the advice I have read when writing my second novel.

Have I planned the sequel in a different way?

 Yes I have, but I’m afraid that’s a blog in the future.

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Filed under Alderney, History of Alderney, Planning a novel, Writing, Writing a novel