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Five Reasons Why Memoirs (can) Suck by Larry Dunlap

Red Guitar and Amp

With several chapters finished, I began having second thoughts about my first attempt at writing a memoir and began looking for successful examples of real stories told from memory. As I began reading bestselling authors Cheryl Strayed, Anne Patchett, Lucy Greally, Diablo Cody, and Mary Karr, I came to understand what skills were needed to be successful in this specific form of literature. Memoir websites and online groups I investigated revealed many would-be writers with worthy ideas expressed in unreadable manuscripts. Discouraging, because real stories can be richer than fiction.

Memoir is defined here as a narrative form of creative non-fiction covering a certain period of time, based primarily on an author’s recollections. With one memoir published and another due soon, these are my top five reasons why I think so many memoirs often suck—and shouldn’t.

If you are writing memoir therapeutically, or a personal family history, other available articles and resources for these will be more useful. If your goal is to share your story with the public, compete for a spot on the New York Times Bestseller list, the requirements are stiff.


Many first-time memoirists, victim or witness to something so horrendous, so unique, believe everyone will be immediately drawn to the intensity of their experience. Memoir never works as a long wail of pain. No matter how big the hole the protagonist falls into, the memoir’s story is the struggle to climb out. A sufferer of disease, natural disaster, abuse, or another challenge, must eventually overcome, regain control, fail, or even expire in the process.

Writing memoir, as in any literary genre, requires craft and skills to make experiences relatable. They cannot be replaced by a bleeding page. Look for other writers, specifically memoirists, who say things the way you would like to. Read their work and examine their techniques.


Whether fiction or non-fiction, western civilization wires us to expect an implicit framework called ‘story’ when relating to another’s experiences. “Story originated as a method of bringing us together to share specific information that might be lifesaving,” says Lisa Cron, author of “Wired for Story.” Here’s what happened when I ate the yellow snow. Our brains subconsciously search for how your experience relates to us as the story draws us in. This reader expectation is known as the three-act story arc: a beginning where we learn what’s at stake and for who, plus some portion of the problem. A middle where storytelling deepens suspense, heightens danger, and builds character motivations. And a final act, leading to resolution.

You might think, real life is messy and unorganized and can’t follow a pre-determined story arc like fiction. While memoirists deal with facts as they recall them, they retain the right to relate, highlight, or de-emphasize events to reveal the story that illustrates underlying truths. If this arc of highs, lows, motivations, and outcomes, isn’t presented in your memoir, it will likely be un-publishable.


Memoir is revelatory by nature. A writer considering this genre should know and understand how the risks can be minimized but not avoided. Unless your goal is to blow somebody’s cover, your main concern is family and friends. I believe it’s only fair to explain your plan and attempt to get early releases for what you write, including photo reprint rights. However, U.S. law believes that people also have a right to their own story. Memoir is based on an author’s recollection of their truth, and sometimes that takes precedence over absolute accuracy. For instance, changing a name or deleting someone from your story is acceptable. As a professional, which you are when you write for publication, the less you reveal, the less accurate you are—the less reliable your memoir.

Memoir is revelatory by nature. A writer considering this genre should know and understand how the risks can be minimized but not avoided. Unless your goal is to blow somebody’s cover, your main concern is family and friends. I believe it’s only fair to explain your plan and attempt to get early releases for what you write, including photo reprint rights. However, U.S. law believes that people also have a right to their own story. Memoir is based on an author’s recollection of their truth, and sometimes that takes precedence over absolute accuracy. For instance, changing a name or deleting someone from your story is acceptable. As a professional, which you are when you write for publication, the less you reveal, the less accurate you are—the less reliable your memoir.

There are legalities regarding using real people in stories and a quick internet search will reveal a few guidelines; you are not allowed to slander or infer someone has broken the law, you must not impugn someone’s reputation to the point their value in the community is damaged. There is one absolute defense however—provable truth. In the U.S., the burden to prove damage is on the person written about, however in the U.K., this is the author’s responsibility. If you think your writing might do these things, seek professional legal help. Consider your writing carefully, intellectual property lawyers are expensive.


Recently I read a memoir that opened devoid of emotion in describing a psychotic episode. There was no explanation to explain what was going on. For two chapters the story seemed disjointed and poorly written when actually it was the character’s thoughts that were so chaotic.

Either through narration, exposition, dialog, responses from nearby characters, it has to be clear to the reader what’s going on. A memoir is not a clinical report. Use your craft and skill as an author to make your memoir accessible to all readers


Many writers of memoir are motivated by one cause or another, often rightfully so. It’s a powerful tool. But if your agenda overwhelms your story, you’ll likely fail. In general, readers do not enjoy being lectured or hectored. Don’t allow your author’s voice to be opinionated. Instead, let your characters advocate your point. Show (don’t tell, that’s usually preachy) within the story, how obstacles are overcome, or should be, based on your cause to ignite the reader’s passion and brain. Distance your cause enough to make the story your main inducement.

Larry DunlapLARRY J. DUNLAP, is the author of NIGHT PEOPLE, Book 1 – Things We Lost in the Night, A Memoir of Love and Music in the 60s with Stark Naked and the Car Thieves, a current AMAZON BEST SELLER in POP ARTIST BIOGRAPHY. Find it in Kindle and Paperback at Amazon.com. The concluding volume of his memoir, ENCHANTED, Book 2 is slated for release in 2016.

In the years following his memoir, Larry roamed the streets of Hollywood as an artist manager, publisher, and Sunset Boulevard recording studio owner/operator. In the Eighties Larry founded the first digital broadcasting network on cable television, followed by several years in video and film production, and post-production. Larry eventually became a pencil-for-hire technical and training writer for Fortune 50 companies. He is a published short story author, music magazine columnist, and authored and drew a published music-based cartoon strip named Frets. Currently, Larry writes creative non-fiction and fiction from his home near the mountains east of Los Angeles.

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Author Interview: Deborah J. Ross

Deborah J. Ross writes and edits fantasy and science fiction. Her work has earned Honorable Mention in Year’s Best SF, Kirkus notable new release, the Locus Recommended Reading List, and James Tiptree, Jr. Award recommended list, Finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and nominated for the National Fantasy Federation Speculative Fiction Award for Best Author, the Nebula Award, and the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. She’s a past Secretary of SFWA and currently on the Board of Directors of Book View Café, an online writers coop. Please welcome her to No Wasted Ink.

Author Deborah J RossI grew up in California and Oregon, coming of age in the 1960s, so of course, I grew my hair long, protested everything, and have the tie-dyed t-shirt to prove it. I accumulated various academic degrees, including a BA in Biology from Reed College and an MS in Psychology from Portland State University, before realizing the true “work of my heart” was storytelling. Now I live in a redwood forest with my family, which includes three cats and a retired “seeing-eye” German Shepherd Dog. In between writing, I’ve lived in France, worked as a medical assistant to a cardiologist, taught parent-child gym classes at the Y, revived an elementary school library, studied Chinese martial arts (tai chi and kung fu san soo), classical piano, and yoga.

When and why did you begin writing?

Well before I learned to scrawl my name, I made up stories, and once I could form proper words and pictures to accompany them, I began putting together whole books. My father was a printer, and our home was amply supplied with paper and ink. In my teens and twenties, I began many novels, even finished a few of them, but never knew what to do with them next, nor did I know any writers beyond a few school friends who were just as clueless as I was. I knew I loved to write, and I occasionally dared to hope that someday, my writing would be more than a secret pleasure.

In my early thirties, just after my first child was born, I hit career burnout and decided to work part-time from home. A friend invited me to join a women’s writing group. Although none of us knew what we were doing, I came home from the first meeting so exhilarated that I drafted the story I’d been playing in my head for the last year. No one told me it was crazy to write a novel in 6 weeks with a new baby and a part-time career. The real break came in 1991, when I lived in Lyons, France. A couple of months after I returned to the States, I sold my first novel.

How did your writing relationship with Marion Zimmer Bradley develop?

Somewhere around 1980, I wrote Marion a fan letter. To my surprise, she wrote back, three pages of single-spaced typewriting. I’d been studying martial arts and we began a correspondence about women’s empowerment, story-telling, family, and a host of related topics.
At that time, the Friends of Darkover held periodic writing contests and published its own fanzine. I sent her a couple of stories and received encouraging comments (and, as I remember, an award for one of the stories and eventual fanzine publication of the other). When Marion began editing the first Sword & Sorceress, she suggested I submit a story for her. I was as elated by the invitation as if it had been a sale, and threw myself into writing the best story I could. It was a modest little story, a respectable first professional sale, but more than that, Marion showed me that I could take my writing seriously.

When I submitted a story for the second volume, Marion telephoned me. “Now Deborah,” she said, “I’m going to take your story, but I’m sending it back to you for revisions.” With that, I made the leap from all-or-nothing sale-or-rejection to working with an editor. My manuscript came back covered in red ink, with comments like, “All thuds are dull!” and “Overwritten.” Don’t just fall in love with your words, she was saying, make them serve the story.
Marion didn’t buy every story I wrote, but she saw most of them. More editorial notes followed, although not as extensive as that first round. I like to think I was improving, but it may also have been that Marion understood when outside critical feedback is helpful, and when the act of writing itself, story after story, is the key to development. She often said that the first million words are practice, and I was well on my way.

With my first novel sale (Jaydium, a science fiction adventure through time and parallel worlds, complete with gigantic, intelligent silver slugs), and short fiction sales to increasingly prestigious markets (like Asimov’s and F & SF), I came into my own.

Over the years, we became friends as well as colleagues and editor/writer. My natural authorial “voice” was close, although not identical, to hers. Toward the end of her life, hampered by a series of strokes, Marion worked with in collaboration several other writers. I was one of the writers she considered because she had watched me develop from a novice to an established professional. We discussed the basic details by mail and then I drove up to see her for a personal chat. She’d been resting and was on oxygen, but she insisted on sitting up when I came in, and soon we were deep in discussion of plot ideas. One of my best memories of her was watching her “come alive” as we discussed character and hatched plot points. Her eyes “glowed as if lit from within,” to use one of her favorite descriptions, and energy suffused her whole being. I asked question after question and then sat back as she spun out answers. It was as if she had opened a window into her imagination and invited me to peek inside. She died before we started the actual writing (The Fall of Neskaya, Zandru’s Forge, A Flame in Hali). and I went on to write three more (The Alton Gift, Hastur Lord, The Children of Kings), and there are more to come.

Writing Darkover stories is much like writing historical fiction. I do research, using not only Marion’s published work, but The Darkover Concordance and her articles in the old Darkover newsletters. I try to create story lines that are true to Marion’s vision of Darkover and the themes that were meaningful to her. Since I work closely with the MZB Literary Trust, I hammer out a detailed outline before I start. Once that’s approved, I turn the process over to my creative back-brain. Because I’m not trying to distort my own intuitive style, I can then write from my heart.

Can you share a little about your current book with us?

My most recent Darkover novel is The Children of Kings, an action-adventure set in the Dry Towns, featuring Gareth Elhalyn, Regis’s grandson, and some nasty space pirates bent on turning Darkover into a smuggling base. I just turned in the next Darkover novel, Thunderlord, a sequel to Hawkmistress, in which the son of the defeated Lord Scathfell plots revenge by marrying a girl from the Rockraven clan, noted for their ability to control storms and lightning. It’s scheduled for an August 2016 release from DAW, under the dual byline with Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Other recent publications include the Lambda Award Finalist Collaborators (under my former name, Deborah Wheeler), and an original epic fantasy trilogy, The Seven-Petaled Shield (in which women get to have heroic adventures), all of these from DAW.
In terms of editing, I’m wrapping up the anthology Realms of Darkover. Once that’s done, I’ll dive into the next novel, The Laran Gambit, which continues the “modern” timeline and brings Darkover and the Terrans back into conflict, er – contact – in a clash between machine-mediated mind control and natural laran Gifts.

What authors have most influenced your writing in addition to Marion Zimmer Bradley? What about them do you find inspiring?

The list is very long! Some of my favorite contemporary authors include Barbara Hambly, Mary Rosenblum, Lois McMaster Bujold, Sherwood Smith, Carol Berg, Freda Warrington, Jennifer Roberson, Chaz Brenchley, Judith Tarr, Vonda N. McIntyre, Ursula K. Le Guin, Charles Stross, Saladin Ahmed, Diana Wynne Jones, and Tanith Lee. I love authors who give me a new way of thinking about story or language. Once it was possible to keep up with who was writing what, but the field is so large now, I’ve given up trying. I rely on the advice of friends whose taste I trust. It’s hilarious when a friend hates what I love and vice-versa, so I go for whatever they pan. When I go to a science fiction convention, I try to buy at least one book by an author I have just met but have not yet read.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Writing is both craft and art. You already have the dream. Now you have to learn the craft. As exciting as the prospect of publication is, if you’re in this for the long haul, be patient. It takes time and work to achieve excellence. There are so many aspects of success you’re powerless over, but the quality of your work is one you do have control over. I wrote a series of essays about nurturing yourself as a writer as you wrestle with the skills, called Ink Dance: Essays on the Writing Life.

Children of Kings Book CoverDeborah J. Ross
Boulder Creek CA


The Children of Kings

Cover artist: Matt Stawicki
Publisher: DAW Books


No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links

writers-linksWelcome to No Wasted Ink Writer’s Link Mondays.  This week I have a nice grab bag of articles for you to take a look at.  There are ones on general writing tips, a fun look at Robert Silverberg’s past work for the government, and an archive of English Dialects that might be of interest.  I hope you enjoy them!

3 Smart Tips for Structuring Powerful Scenes

To MFA or Not to MFA

The International Dialects of English Archive

All Stories Are the Same

Poem: The birthday of the world

Robert Silverberg Wrote a Survey of Drugs in Science Fiction for the Federal Government


Women Who Advanced Science and Changed History

The Business of Writing: Structure of the Author Blog

Mastering the Art of the Cliffhanger Chapter Ending

Author Interview: Tom Gondolfi

No Wasted Ink is proud to present an original, approachable science fiction and cyberpunk author with so many stories in his head that he can’t hope to publish them all…short of becoming one with the singularity. Please welcome, Thomas Gondolfi.

Author Tom GondolfiMy name is Thomas Gondolfi, owner of TANSTAAFL Press and author of Toy Wars and the CorpGov Chronicles.

I’m a father of three, consummate gamer (board or role-playing) and loving husband and claim to be a Renaissance man and certified flirt. I was raised as a military brat, I spent the first twenty years of my life moving to a new place every few years giving me a unique perspective on most regions of the United states.

Educated as an electrical engineer and working in high tech for over twenty years, I have also worked as a cook, motel manager, most phases of home construction, volunteer firefighter, and even as the personal caregiver to a quadriplegic.

I’ve been writing fiction for over thirty years and doing it professionally for at least fifteen. Most of my short stories have been commissioned for use in gaming products, such as Babylon 5 Wars and Star Fleet Battles. I’ve honed my abilities through writing well over a million words.

When and why did you begin writing?

I started in high school. I had a friend who took creative writing and threw down the gauntlet that he had written the longest story his teacher had ever received and received nothing but As through his class. I couldn’t let that pass. I wrote two works longer, got consistent As and had the teacher tell me I should write for a living. I continued to write and finish my first novel in high school. As you can imagine it was awful. Along the Paths of Dreams had ever cliché, and mistake a writer can make. But I learned from each dreadful painful scene.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I finally felt I’d made it when I finished Toy Wars and the yet to be published novel Wayward School. I’d already been paid for a number of short works but to me it was a novel that make it work. I didn’t really feel I was an author until I had a number of people who purchased it and gushed over it.

Can you share a little about your current book with us?

The Bleeding Edge – CorpGov Chronicles: Book Three is the culmination of a war that began in Thinking Outside the Box. As a funny side note, I’d intended Thinking Outside the Box to encompass all of the material in both books but as I got close to the end of my outline (about 300 pages) for TOTB I realized that I’d mistakenly summed up an entire war in two outline bullet points. I tried to make it fit anyways but it rang hollow. I knew I would have to do yet another book to make it work. So TOTB ended up being the political lead up to the war and The Bleeding Edge was the war in all it gory.. I mean glory.

What inspired you to write this book?

If we assume Thinking Outside the Box and The Bleeding Edge as a single book, the reason I wrote them as a follow-up to An Eighty Percent Solution was that I could never understand why power blocks around the previous junta would sit still after a successful coup. The Bleeding Edge itself is to show how a badly one-sided conflict can suddenly turn and go the other way as in what happened to Germany in WWII. In our more highly technical society the flip could be so much faster.

Do you have a specific writing style?

My style varies from series to series depending on the needs of the book. Toy Wars is 1st person with a great deal of mentation on the part of the main character. CorpGov Chronicles is third person following a different character (including the bad guys) for each few page segment of the story but maintaining the flow of the story.

How did you come up with the title of this book?

All the titles of the CorpGov Chronicles are corporate catch phrases. In this case it is too appropriate. The Bleeding Edge is the vast amounts of money required by businesses to stay on the forefront of technology. In this case it is more literally referring to the blood spilled in a war of aggression.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

I’ve said this many times in my author’s note. I write for entertainment, not to forward a social agenda. I do have many personal/political opinions, many of them very strong. However, I don’t use my writing as a venue for shoving them down others’ throats. You want to talk to me in person about something, I’ll be more than happy to disillusion you that I might have all the answers.

Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?

No. I’ve never been part of a coup or been part of a guerrilla organization.

What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
The name of my publishing company, TANSTAAFL Press, should be a clue. Robert Heinlein influenced me in a number of ways including the opinions I’ve mentioned earlier. It seems ironic that I wouldn’t forward the messages Heinlein wrote about in my own works but I’ve always believed that people should have the chance to look at their surroundings and choose. Why should I be trying to inflict my will upon anyone else?

If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
Steve Kay. You’ve likely never heard of him unless you watch Voyager closely (he has two story credits there). He was forced to delay his burgeoning career because of twins. Steve taught me that talent doesn’t equal craft. I always had talent. I needed to learn craft. There is a quote of his I use with new authors… “You don’t know what you are doing until you have written a million words.” It took me many years to learn the truth behind this simple statement but now I can’t emphasis it enough.

Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?
Two different people you are talking about. Illustrator was Tony Foti an exceptional commercial artist that is easy to work with and reasonably priced. The cover design was yours truly.

Do you have any advice for other writers?
It may be trite but Write. Independent Review. Rewrite. Publish!

Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I can’t do any of this without your help and support. I will remain approachable, always. I’m just a person and the moment my head gets too big my wife will pop it with the story of the cooler on the banister (ask me some day for a chuckle).

Bleeding Edge Book CoverThomas Gondolfi
Yelm, WA


Publisher: TANSTAAFL Press
Cover Artist: Tony Foti

The Bleeding Edge


No Wasted Ink Writer’s Links

writers-linksIt is Monday again and time for another round of articles about general writing tips, marketing as an author, and a few about blogging. I hope you find them useful!

How To Choose Your Author Name

Joanne Harris’s Ten Tips for Kickstarting Your Writing

How to Study Plot and Character in Your Favorite Stories: 5 Easy Steps

6 easy ways to improve readability in 5 minutes or less

It’s Not About Selling Books, It’s About Earning Readers

Life on Other Planets

Does Your Rejected Work Need A Rewrite?

Engaging Audiences through Twitter in 15 Minutes a Day


What kind of novels have you condemned yourselves to write?