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Times Past: Themes and Focus

By Irene Waters

Although memoir is a true story of a particular part of your life, it must still have structure if you intend for others to read it. Firstly you have to decide what is the story that you want to tell. For most memoir writers it will be the most exciting, heart-pounding, significant time of their lives. For some, this may be their childhood to their coming of age (known as a bildungsroman) whilst for others, it may be an illness, an experience that happens later in life or it could be the relationship you had with a particular animal or a business venture you had undertaken. In reality – it can be any theme you choose. These days there are even immersion memoirs where a person will undertake some task or live amongst, e.g. footballers, for months and then write a memoir on this experience. For most of us, we know our story, and we know what has had the most impact on us, and that is what we decide to write about. For me – it was when my husband and I, as newlyweds, went into partnership with the paramount chief of an exotic island in the Pacific in the running of a small resort and tour business.

Early in the writing process you also need to decide for whom you are writing. Is your audience only yourself, your family or are you planning to publish and sell your memoir to the public. When I started writing my memoir the plan was that it was being written for my family. I included detail that interested them as they knew the friend that helped us load a pile of timber into a container that was eventually to be the house we built on the remote island. As I ventured further into the story my focus changed and I decided that this was a story that had wider appeal than just my loved ones. However, this change meant that the chapters I had already written had to rewritten to remove information that no-one, other than my family and friends, would have much if any interest in knowing. If, however, you are writing for your family then lots of detail about the family will be of interest to that readership. Early in my blogging I came across a chap that had published his memoir. I purchased it on Amazon only to find that this was a story that had been written for the family and had little appeal to the wider audience. It may have been worthy of some blogging of the more interesting aspects but I don’t think it should never have been put up for sale to the public without a lot of editing. If you are writing just for yourself then you can be free with details of a personal nature that might be therapeutic for you to acknowledge but should never be let into the public domain.

Having decided on a theme and a focus the writing begins. How you do this is an individual choice. Some people free write their first draft, just putting down all thoughts on paper. In the second draft, they add the structure. Personally, I write in a structured way from the start, but in second drafts I may change my starting point. Lee Gutkind, the father of creative nonfiction, suggests that you should open with a scene as it is crucial to draw the reader into the narrative immediately. Scenes are active. They show instead of tell and have dialogue and high definition scenes. Scenes and reflections on the effect that this has had on the author’s life should be put into the structure of the book. Again, this can be done in numerous ways either intermingled or set apart from each other.

Once the first draft has been written it should be re-read looking for the themes, focus, scenes, and reflection. If part of the narrative has nothing to do with the theme, even if it is a great story, get rid of it. If it doesn’t suit the focus, edit so that it does. Rewrite to create scenes where necessary and add reflection where there is none.

I would also suggest, as has Stephen King, Lee Gutkind, and many others, that reading memoirs that are of a similar theme to your own is a helpful exercise. Doing so allows you to see what works and what doesn’t work regarding structure. Sometimes the ones you don’t enjoy teach you more than those that you think are fantastic. Analyse what works and what doesn’t work. Reading is also useful when it comes to selling your book to a publisher as they will want to know – where on the bookshelf would this sit? Be able to tell the publisher who your memoir will appeal to. Mine will appeal to those that like travel memoirs, true-life adventure, small business and those wanting to make a change in their life. Knowing the themes and the focus will tighten your writing. I’m looking forward to joining in the discussion on your views of themes and focus.

The prompt for this month’s Times Past is a little different to those normally given. This month I am asking you to reflect on the biggest change in your lifetime. This can be a social change or a technological one or even one of both. Please join in giving your location at the time of your memory and your generation. An explanation of the generations and the purpose of the prompts along with conditions for joining in can be seen at the Times Past Page. Join in either in the comments or by creating your own post and linking. Looking forward to your memories.