Tips For Writing Your Personal or Family Story
- Getting Started. My favourite line is “the best tool in the writer’s tool kit is glue. Now spread it on your seat and sit down.” If you want to write a story, the first thing you need to do is find time and commit. It helps to write daily. It also helps to write at the same time every day. Momentum is very important, and a firm schedule helps create momentum. Some great books to get you writing are The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron and Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.
- Voice. Once you find the voice in which you want to tell your story, the telling will flow more smoothly. I like the definition of voice as “personality on the page.” The more you can be yourself on the page, the more original, engaging, and believable your writing will be. Voice has to do with a number of factors that create that personality: word choice, sentence length, tone, and humour, for a few examples. My favourite way to achieve voice is to think: who am I telling my story to? Once I have my audience/listener, I find it easier to achieve an intimate, “real” voice.
- Showing versus Telling. Writing instructors will often tell you to show (reveal story in scene) rather than tell (explain story in exposition). Another way to think of the difference between these two is that in showing it feels to the readers like they’re watching a movie with events unfolding around them in 3D, whereas in telling it feels like a static person is standing there telling them (this happened then this happened and she’s like this and he’s like that and then this happened – more one dimensional). Aim when you can for showing and scene over telling and exposition. However, exposition serves its purpose. Sometimes you use exposition to hurry a story along through material that doesn’t feel worthy of scene. Sometimes you can also use exposition to pull meaning or wisdom out of the scene for the reader.
- Hooks. What will keep your reader reading? Use unanswered questions, dramatic tension, conflict, profound insights, and beautiful sentences to keep your writer glued to the page.
- Dialogue. Listen to the way people talk in real life. Try to capture that on the page. Dialogue also works as characterization. The way people talk tells us something about who they are. Read your dialogue aloud to hear if it works.
- Setting. Story and people need to be rooted in place. Is the setting of your story coming through? Use the five senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture) to make the place come to life.
- Revision. Another of my favourite lines is “writing is rewriting what you’ve already rewritten.” Good writing comes through very many drafts. The good thing is this knowledge of the process takes the pressure off the first draft. Think of a first draft of a story as the “lump of clay” draft – it’s just giving you the material to work with which you will shape and polish in future attempts.
- Early readers. Pick your early readers carefully. You want people who are going to encourage you, but also give helpful and constructive feedback that you’re ready to receive.
- Reading as a writer. The best way to learn to write is to read, read, read. Figure out what draws and holds your attention. Learn from that.
- Have fun! If you enjoy the writing, the chances are better that your readers will enjoy the reading.
Dr. Angie Abdou is the best-selling author of seven books. Her first novel, The Bone Cage, was a finalist for Canada Reads 2011. Her most recent novel, In Case I Go (2017), was a finalist for the 2017 Banff Mountain Book Award in the fiction and poetry category. Vancouver Sun said this about In Case I Go: “A spectacularly successful novel. This book is highly recommended to anyone who cares about strong, moving fiction and about social justice.” Chatelaine Magazine named it one of 2017’s most riveting mystery novels. Angie’s newest book, a memoir called Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom, was featured on CBC’s “Sunday Edition” and CTV’s “The Social.” It hit the Canadian bestseller list and the #1 spot on Amazon Canada’s bestselling hockey books. According to a Booklist starred review, Home Ice is “a first-rate memoir and a fine example of narrative nonfiction. It’s also a must-read for parents with youngsters who play organized sports.” Angie is an associate professor of creative writing at Athabasca University. She holds a Ph.D. in creative writing from University of Calgary. Her new memoir will be released in spring 2021.