Write Your Family Story – Part 3: Your Goals and Active Verbs
Many books have been written that will help you craft a memoir. You only have to search Amazon.com, your local bookstore or your local library to find them. Some of these books will tell you that writing your story is a process of self discovery, that it’s good therapy. Others will assume that you want to write with a technique and a flair that will attract a publisher.
Unless you’re super-talented with lots of innate ability, attracting the eye of a publisher is a difficult road to travel — but a worthwhile journey if publishing’s your ultimate goal and you’re willing to commit more hours than you can possibly imagine. If you’re that determined, how-to-write books will help you.
I don’t promise that this series of Write Your Family Story articles will bring you therapeutic results. I don’t promise that I can help you land a publishing contract. I do promise that I will help you write a story for your family, that may or may not attract the attention of other, paying readers. You may discover something about yourself as you write.
Your writing can achieve family significance whether you have a nicely bound book, a few pages printed at your local print shop, or a few loose leaf sheets that you’ve stapled together at your kitchen table. Your story will be valuable no matter how you write or present it. It’s the content that’s important.
I’ve read that people don’t read much anymore, and when they do, it’s mostly snippets — it’s condensations and excerpts that attract them. Today’s readers like stories that move, and this suggests we should write sparsely. That can be done by eliminating most adverbs, reducing adjectives and prepositional phrases, and relying upon that most useful fellow — the active verb.
The word “wrote” in “Catherine wrote the poem” is an example of an active verb. “The poem was written by Catherine” is a passive construction.
Use as many active verbs as possible in your stories, and replace prepositional phrases and adjectives with active verbs. For example, it is better to say, “The man staggered (or careened) down the sidewalk” than to say, “He wandered from side to side down the walk.” The former is more concise, more powerful, and invokes a stronger image.
Do the same with concrete nouns. Readers can draw images of tangible nouns like Ruby, ice cream, or silo. Incorporate into your writing material objects that readers can see, touch, taste, or smell — objects they can relate to.
“Ruby slammed into Henry before he hit Catherine a second time,” lets us know exactly who did what, whereas an abstract noun doesn’t produce as tangible a picture. The abstract subject in the sentence, “Bravery was in evidence throughout the battlefield,” may evoke many images. But until we give those brave soldiers identities, we can’t put a face on the actors.
Abstract subjects and passive verbs are not, in themselves, grammatically incorrect. But generally, your subjects should be concrete and active — rather than abstractions and acted upon. A story becomes crisp, and flows better, when you reduce abstract subjects and passive verbs.
Those of us who write family stories have an advantage, a built-in audience, so to speak. Still, your family members will appreciate your work when you write concise, interesting material.
Next month, we’ll begin talking about the simple narrative summary anecdotes that my mother, Laura Annette Fitzsimons, wrote in her 1999 memoir, From High on the Bluff. I’ll detail and elaborate on those anecdotes, still using the narrative summary procedure. I assume that most of you will tell your story using this non-fiction narrative summary style.
For those of you who want to go a step or two further — or maybe a mile — I’ll demonstrate next month how I used my mother’s anecdotes to write a fictional account of her stories, while still retaining the events and interpersonal relationships she described. I call this process writing family fiction. And for the brave, I’ll demonstrate how the “show” techniques used in novels can enhance your non-fiction narrative summary.
Start at the top: Write Your Family Story Series Introduction