Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Memory Trick

Powerful, detailed, vivid descriptions are a key part of compelling and readable nonfiction.

As I read things like Joan Didion's "A Year Of Magical Thinking," I can't help thinking, "How does she *do* that!"

Didion vividly describes sights, smells, colors and textures of events ten, twenty, thirty or forty years in the past. Hell, I can't do that with something forty minutes in the past.

After thinking this through for a while I figured out a way I might compensate for my poor memory when writing nonfiction:

1. Begin by listing everything I remember about an event, without bothering about details, inaccuracies or relevancy.

2. Trim the list. Throw out memories that are clearly unrelated to the story.

3. Organize memories into scenes. The scenes may be in chronological order or they may form a dramatic arc.

4. Gather information about the memories on the list. This might involve visiting a place and recording impressions, re-enacting experiences, reading descriptions, and interviewing people. (Do extensive note taking.)

5. Organize the notes and information.

6. First draft.
Write a first draft, going quickly and not worrying about inconsistency or missing stuff.

7. More research.
The first draft usually reveals holes in the research. Fill in these holes.

8. Second draft.

9. Polish.
Polish the second draft. The polish sequence might be:
- Craft an opening from a visual anecdote in the draft.
- Cut weakest paragraphs.
- Craft an ending.
- Review for external logic (all the steps there? Anything missing?)
- Review internal logic: one idea per paragraph, one thought per sentence, sentences follow logically, transitions between paragraphs.
- Remove adjectives and adverbs.
- Punch up descriptions. (visual words)
- Read aloud. (flow and pacing)

10. Get feedback
- Give piece to "ideal readers"

9. Revise as appropriate.

10. Deliver
- Package the manuscript and deliver to publisher.
- If the manuscript is a chapter or section from a larger work, print the chapter and put it in a 3-ring binder.

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