Sunday, July 14, 2013

Writers Series' Karen Prior Answers Three Questions

Karen Prior: 'Someone should write a book like that.'
Karen Swallow Prior, author of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, will teach a class on memoir Wednesday, 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. at Community High School in Roanoke and she agreed to give you a snippet of what she will talk about. She's answered three questions for us below.

Karen's book is a literary memoir, a sort of sub-genre, but she has been honored as an English teacher a number of times. She is a professor at Liberty University and Booked has received fawning reviews--well deserved, I'll add.

The class is free and you can easily find the school by Googling it. Hope to see you there. Here are Karen's questions and answers:

Your memoir is specific and focused. How did you determine that was the best path and why did you pursue it?

The idea occurred to me in an instant. I heard about a book that took a similar approach with films. This book wasn’t a memoir, but a book of spiritual lessons from popular movies. I thought to myself, “Someone should write a book like that about books.” About 10 seconds later, I thought, “I could write that book!”

How it turned into a memoir is tightly connected to the arduous story (with a happy ending) of finding the right publisher.

Once a focus is found, regardless of what it is, what is the best way to proceed? 

After the idea comes the book proposal. That can feel like writing a book in itself! However, a book proposal is very formulaic. It’s best to just follow a template (many are available and sometimes publishers have their own).

Getting an agent would be the next step, although doing that can be as hard or harder than getting a publisher. The best way to make connections is to attend the writers conferences that agents attend. In the case of non-fiction, the truism is true: write only a few chapters until you have a publisher.

The publisher has so very much influence on the shape of the book—in my case, in very good ways—that much of what you have written may have to be rewritten. This isn’t necessarily bad, but I think the best chapters in my book are the ones I wrote once I had a publisher and knew what kind of book it wanted.

Rewriting old material is often harder than starting fresh. This is where the book proposal comes back into play. It can be your lifesaver when you are floundering, the words won’t flow, and you feel like you should quit writing and go work at a bank. That skeleton is there before you, just begging you to keep putting flesh on its bones.

Just being able to envision that bare outline in all its fullness—or almost envision it—will be enough to keep you going. Some days.

Talk some about research goals and methods (including mining the family). Our memories are so imperfect and impressionistic.

It’s helpful and wise to test your memories against those of key players in your memoir. In doing that, you will find that they will remember things you’ve forgotten, things that are part of your story.

Memoir traffics in essential truths as well as facts. Sometimes they can both be hard to verify. But you can still be honest with your reader in acknowledging that. On the other hand, Google makes it possible today to verify many things: What was the date of that concert? Was it really winter when I met that man at the exhibit? What was the name of that town?

Facts like these make stories come alive and they help a memoir achieve the goal of every memoir: finding the truth of your story.

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