Fiction and Memoir Class – November 2022

Carol Brennan King

I don’t know about you, but around the first of November, it feels like I have stepped into a time warp. I work hard on readying notes for the classes I teach, and the two classes I take. And I am constantly working on projects related to writing like the following: poems, query letters, notes from classes, notes for classes, and my book with all the related writing tasks.

Those tasks pile themselves on the normal day-to-day tasks of living and making a home. I won’t bother with the details of that except to add that we are all in some way prepping for Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s my excuse for not getting notes from our classes out in a timely manner.

Enough whining, but can’t you relate just a little bit?

Two weeks ago, a couple of my beta readers finished the book and sent lots of encouraging comments. I shared this in class because we had been talking about voice, and my readers commented on voice in their reports.

Your work will/should reflect three voices.

  1. Your readers who know you well and have heard many samples of your work should be able to say, “I know who wrote that. It sounds just like Carol. She would put it that way.”
  2. The voice of your narrator, the person who is narrating the story to your reader should also have a consistent voice. That just means that all those bits between quoted material or conversations should sound like the same person. In my book, the narrator is telling the story as though written by an Irish person…enough of the vernacular to sound like an Irish person was speaking, but not so much that you couldn’t follow what’s happening.
  3. Your characters should also have their own voice. In my book, John the husband and father should sound like an Irish husband and father of the 1850’s. He should speak with that voice consistently through the story.

Here are two paragraphs from one reader’s comments:

When I was in your book I became Irish.  You have incredible writing skills, including the unique facility to adopt a foreign dialect that really trips off the tongue with utter ease.  The talent you display in telling a tale of a people who had to flee to the unknown or perish in the known is awesome.  The dialog flows like a creek on a quiet summer day.  With no effort whatsoever.  Like the soundtrack to a good movie.  And you made me care for those people, feel their fear and be awed by the courage it took to leave.

Here’s a second quote from that report:

Regardless, it was so engaging to read the history about local ‘Pennsylvanay’ towns and appreciate assorted factoids like if you were upwind of the tanneries, Tunkhannock smelled like new wood.  What an image.  Often your words gave me similar impressions that embedded in my mind and made it crackle.  I like crackling.  You also made me better understand the additional peril for the immigrants when they tried to sound more English to avoid being attacked by them.  

Does that help you think about voice in your writing? IF not, send me a note and maybe I can give you some other material on voice.

That was two weeks ago. Now, this last week we talked again about personal essays, a form that is short, personal, and hot right now.

FIRST: their assignment (and yours if you want to accept it) is to write an essay about an event that happened at some time in the past between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Think about the assignment as retelling a story about an event you remember, like the Thanksgiving Aunt Lillian forgot to take the bird out of the freezer and did not realize how important that would prove to be until the morning of the grand feast

The assignment was to write the account in 500, 750, or 1000 words. My suggestion was to aim at 1000 words first because then you have lots of words to cut. It is harder, believe me, to add words than to cut them. Especially for a first draft when we tend to pile in a lot of unnecessary details.

When the first essay is written, and you are happy with it, write the next of another length. The object is to learn by observing that the personal essay or reflection is the structure that will help you stay on track. The idea of compression is an important skill. You look at that first draft, and then you consider what can you cut and still see and hear the piece sing…in other words, be really interesting.

Before I get more specific about writing essays, I want you to understand this is not just busy work.


Trust The Sun with your story.

We publish personal essays, short stories, poems, and black-and-white photography in print and online in our monthly magazine.

We’re looking for narrative writing and evocative photography from all over the world. Send us work that maps the human landscape, where the light catches on the faintest joy, where darkness sometimes threatens to overwhelm, and where  never marks the spot because the truth is never so simple.

There are lots of places where you can sell well-written essays or microfiction. Google “microfiction contests or journals looking for microfiction.” BUT DO THAT LATER. FIRST TO THE MECHANICS OF WRITING MICROFICTION.

  1. Work in short sprints. Think 10 or 20 minutes to get down the bones of this short memoir essay.
  2. Brainstorm the story. Write down an outline containing key character(s), location, and the big deal around which the story exists. Write it in one sentence. “I remember the first Christmas my sister and new husband came to Thanksgiving and I fed them a bird with frozen organs inside.” Think of it as scenes or even one or two scenes since this is one short essay.
  3. Some people find sketching out a mind map is helpful before they write
  4. Put the main character or star of the show in a circle.
  5. Then, plant the characters or events necessary to tell the story well around the circle. Now stick it on the wall or the side of your computer: someplace where you can see it and allow it to help you keep focused.
  6. Write the piece and do your preliminary polishing – not for more than 30 minutes.
  7. Allow it to sit. Go for a walk. Drink a cup of coffee. but think about something else. Then come back and read the thing out loud and make any more changes that you have heard or seen. DON’T SKIP the reading out loud. You will hear hiccups when you cannot see them on the paper.

Now, if you are a fiction writer and don’t want to mess around with your memories, pick one of the characters in your current work and do the same exercise. You might learn something important that you can use in the bigger piece.

So there you are. You have learned how to write a brief essay, a personal story. This can be plugged into something longer or even be the source of a longer piece.

This process may be useful when you hit a wall during another project.

Remember, word count is important. If the editor or journal you are submitting to sees that you have ignored the word count requirements, they will not look at your piece. They are not being jerks. They only have so much space, and you, my friend, must fit into it.

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