The making of a memoir

Fairfield’s Randi Oster (right) has written a Randi-Oster-214x300105,000-word memoir, Questioning Protocol. It tells the story of her experience acting as her teenage son Gary’s patient advocate during a difficult period of his battle with Crohn’s disease, a stretch in which he was hospitalized twice. In addition, it offers readers tools to deal more effectively with their own and their loved ones’ critical health-care issues.

A former workshop colleague of mine, Randi was highly energetic and organized, and a natural storyteller. She also was, as our Writers’ Workshop of Fairfield leader Carol Dannhauser liked to put it, a rocket scientist. Literally. What Randi was not in those early workshops, by either natural-born gift or education or profession, was a writer.

The story of the making of Randi’s memoir is also the story of the making of a writer.

Parroting Carol’s oft-repeated verbal reminder to her from our workshop days, Randi says with a laugh, “ ‘It’s comma, quote.’ I never learned this in school. I am a product of the ’70s Bronx school system. To escape a mediocre education, I went to the Bronx High School of Science, where I avoided writing and focused on math and science.  Then in college, I studied electrical engineering. I barely wrote papers, much less anything with dialogue.”

Randi went to work at General Electric, rising to key roles in leading teams that designed such technological marvels as sensors for the Stealth fighter. Eventually, she joined the executive ranks, where she received leadership training in GE’s legendary Six Sigma quality control program. After she left GE, she joined Carol’s exercise-based workshop, then moved on to another that focused on memoir.

Despite her late start in writing, Randi has always done something even longtime writers often cannot bring themselves to do: She submits her work for possible publication. One successful example was a local contest. In 2011, her piece “Countdown to Chili” was accepted for and included in the Writers’ Room of the Fairfield Public Library’s anthology Around the Table: Food Memories of Fairfield. An excerpt from her new memoir recently was published in a health-industry magazine, another is being reviewed for possible publication in one of the country’s most prestigious medical journals, and the manuscript has attracted serious attention from literary agents.

Here are some of the writing lessons Randi learned in the making of her memoir:

Composing: Get editing help. After taking Carol’s memoir workshop, Randi decided to devote herself to writing the book, making it a fulltime job with a goal of producing 10 pages a week. To help her, she hired Carol to spend one hour a week editing her newest copy. Randi is not the only member of our former workshop who recommends an editing approach. Gabi Coatsworth, a Fairfield-based award-winning essayist and short story writer, rarely submits a piece of writing before having a professional editor critique it. [See “Why hire an editor? Here’s why”; FWB, March 1, 2011]

Early on, both the writing and the editing went slowly. “One time I wrote a sentence that took me 45 minutes,” Randi said. “Carol, reading along, said, ‘Oh, this is good.’ Then she just went on to the next sentence. I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? That was 45 minutes.’ ”

Nevertheless, instead of 10 pages, or the more realistic seven that Carol had set as a standard, the first week they struggled to review two. At the end of their 60 minutes, Randi would go home with Carol’s red-penciled pages and “input the changes. Every single week. I didn’t let them pile up. I didn’t say, Oh, I’ll do that in three weeks.

“A lot of it wasn’t copy-editing,” Randi continues. “It was thought editing. She would have a note: Need to add more about Blah. That takes time, to add more about Blah. That wasn’t edited. That was material missing. I would probably spend Monday and Tuesday just updating what needed to get done. And then I would spend the last three days of the week trying to come up with the new stuff. I was making the same mistakes over and over.”

Such as? “I learned to stop ‘realizing’ for the reader.  Now, in the past I would have written, ‘I learned pretty quickly to stop “realizing” for the reader.’ ” And to eliminate those –ly adverbs.

Voice: Be true to yourself. Randi fell into the trap that ensnares many writers who read stories similar to their own between writing sessions. “I would like the style of someone else’s voice,” she says. “Then I would write my story with that other voice. Carol would look at my copy and go, ‘It’s crap.’ I’d say, ‘What do you mean? I’m being literary.’ I learned that when I was authentic and real, the pages flew so much faster.”

But being authentic and real has its drawbacks for the memoirist. “It meant being brutally honest,” Randi says. “So I don’t always come out looking good. Sometimes I’m a bitch. When you’re writing, it’s hard to make yourself look bad. But the truth is, that’s what I needed to do. It was easy to find fault in everyone else. But the reader sees through that. You must not be afraid of showing the skeletons in your own closet. That’s hard. I got used to writing the truth, but now I realize that people are going to read it. Now the game isn’t fair. Someone else will know so much more about me than I’ll ever know about them.”

There’s an ultimate payoff, though: “People can relate, because now I’m not some figment of perfection. I’m a real person.”

Language: Think of your reader. Despite years as an electrical engineer and a GE employee schooled in the argot and acronyms of Six Sigma, Randi’s language in the book is a reader’s language. “Technical. Detailed. Boring,” she says in a singsong voice, “is what I avoided.” Yet her Six Sigma training plays an important role in the book, especially in the climax, where she shows how a focus on quality can make a difference and she gives readers tools they can use themselves in a real-life setting.

One method she used to make the complex simple was to draw analogies. For example, when she describes the tribal divisions of the medical personnel in the hospital cafeteria, she equates them to the different-colored flamingoes and other birds she had seen standing apart from one another at the San Diego Zoo. And to convey the personalities of the members of her family and other key players, she compares them to the characteristics of the Hundred Acre Wood storybook residents in Benjamin Hoff’s 1982 bestseller, The Tao of Pooh, derived from the A. A. Milne classic.

Structure: Tell a story. To be successful, Randi knew, her memoir needed to include the key elements of narrative storytelling that one would find in fiction.

An inciting incident that defined Randi’s personal conflict—and triggered her thorough note-taking that she referred to while writing the book—arose when a doctor prescribed Gary a medication without first telling Randi, which she had previously told the physician she wanted him to do. Three weeks after that incident, Gary was back in the hospital.

“If we’re talking about story arc,” she says, “I was blessed, in a weird way, that my son had a disease and that we got him through [a crisis] in a positive way. I knew there would have to be some growth in the main character, who is me, and that there should be an ‘aha’ moment.”

That came at the end of a darkest-hour turning point, a harrowing high-speed, 3 a.m. ambulance ride between two hospitals during a thunder-and-lightning downpour, complete with a demonic-looking EMT at the wheel and an eerie, heavy-metal soundtrack blasting from the dashboard radio. When the man changed the station and Mariah Carey’s “Hero” came on—the song was No. 1 on the charts the day Gary was born—Randi found peace in its message, which she defines as: “You’ll find the strength from within.”

She says that, “In memoir, unlike fiction, you have to hope that these moments happen, because you can’t make it up. But those are real things that happened.” What she leaves unsaid is that, as a writer, you also have to be able to recognize such moments and their proper places in your story structure.

Message: Incorporate a broader theme. Randi views her book as more than just a personal story of “how I navigated the health-care system.” It is, she says, a toolkit for “the 141 million people with chronic diseases who are constantly going in and out of the system.” Rather than blaming doctors and other medical personnel, she uses her quality-control training to suggest ways to “improve the performance and the process, so everyone does better. There were very clear tools that I used. . . .There were techniques that enabled my son to end up not needing medication and take a nutritional approach. All those tricks are in the book. And those skills and tips are easily learned and transferred. My goal, for every page and a half, was for readers to have learned something they can use.”

Reviewing & Revising: You are not done yet. Upon finally finishing her memoir, Randi hauled her edited stack of pages north to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Every day, she’d go to a different tourist landmark—Norman Rockwell’s veranda, Edith Wharton’s garden, Mt. Greylock—and sit down, pencil in hand, to read the book from start to finish. At night in her B&B room, she would type in the changes on her computer.

Some of those alterations involved cutting. “There were times when I would take four sentences to make one thought,” she says. “To go from four sentences to one sentence makes it powerful. It gets faster and smarter.” At least 25,000 words ended up on the floor.

More illuminating to Randi than finding places to cut “was how I was able to tie things at the end back to the beginning. Because I could see it all, I could see where I could build up a more of the story. So now it has more of a flow.”

When she returned home, she went through every single page of the book a final time.

Even now, though, Randi may have more to do. After reading the final manuscript, a friend asked her, “What happened at the end? I feel like your pen ran out of ink. I wanted about 15 more pages.”

Randi expects that the book’s eventual publisher may say the same. But after all her hard work, she says she told her friend, “I couldn’t take it any more.” Yes, even she had run out of writing energy.

Final Lessons: Write and enjoy. Randi concedes, of course, that not every aspiring author can afford to hire an editor. Nevertheless, she says, “A person with a story should not limit themselves because they feel inadequate. Write. Read. Write. Then write more. If you can afford to, take a workshop and learn. I couldn’t have done it without the writing workshops. In my case, specifically, the memoir workshop taught me to be honest on the page. Eventually, you will find that you have completed a work, and then you will be able to figure out the next best step. But, there is no next step if you don’t start!”

In the end, to write a book, be it a memoir, a novel, or anything else, something inside is more important than one’s inspiration, education or professional skill. “I think it’s passion,” Randi says, “and a determination to give yourself the gift of saying, I did it. It doesn’t matter what happens to your book. It doesn’t matter if it’s not a bestseller. But allow yourself to be able to say, I finished. The book is ancillary to the passion. Enjoy the process.”

Publishing: Build a platform. Having finished the manuscript and embarked on the agent search, Randi has been “building her platform.” She has her own website and she’s established a presence on social media. She has attended conferences where she’s met authors of bestselling books on her general subject but approached from other angles (with the hope of getting one of those authors to write a foreword). She has become a screener for the prestigious Malcolm Baldridge Awards. She has submitted excerpts, and seen one get published. And she has done interviews like this one, with broadcast outlets as well as print.

Thus, when the next interested agent calls and asks the inevitable “Do you have a platform?” question, Randi will be able to answer with a resounding, “Yes!”

That’s exclamation point, close quote, Randi.—Alex McNab

I Was a Wrimo Again

Participant-100x100-2Hello writers, from Adair Heitmann. With the recent, tragic and unimaginable losses in the Sandy Hook community in Newtown, CT, I can barely focus on this post. Yet, writing helps me through grief, it has universal curative powers.

Kahlil Gibran wrote, “When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” Much of our collective grief has to do with the senseless killing of innocent children. Children who were in a safe place, school. Children who were with teachers and administrators, loyal to the children’s welfare and capable of taking care of them, until, the unthinkable happens. Gibran’s quote helps me see that I cry because I love children, because I’m a mom, because I’m a teacher, and because I love teachers. All those things, when taken in the balanced order of life, bring delight. I mourn, with the rest of our country and the world. As a writer, I write, to help me get through this grief. So, I am going to continue with the essay I planned, an article about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).

Dipping my toe in the NaNoWriMo seas again this year was truly delightful. This past November, I managed to participate in NaNoWriMo and still keep my job. Plus keep all my diverse professional and personal plates spinning. The purpose of NaNoWriMo is to inspire writers of all ages to write 50,000 words in one month. I entered with my eyes wide open, knowing that reality prohibited me from having the spare time to write a 50,000 fictional novel. However, if I added up all the words that I wrote for work, I’m sure I’ve written several full-fledged novels during the month of November. I used NaNoWriMo as a way to fertilize my own writer’s platform, by playing in a national arena. I knew I couldn’t complete a new novel, but my day job gave me the opportunity to participate as part of a community outreach. (It’s nice to write for a living.)

To complete the participation in NaNoWriMo, I needed to look into my own resources of what I’d previously written. I brushed off a parable, for children of all ages, that I wrote 21 years ago. I re-worked some sections, and wrote some with fresh eyes. NaNoWriMo inspired me this year. I had to submit something to get the dandy “Participant 2012” icon you see above. I submitted my children’s parable in a word document to the official NaNoWriMo word count counter on their website. The word count added up to a spanking 2,369! Like any good teacher who acknowledges an advancement that his or her student makes, I’m giving myself an A for effort.

Being involved in NaNoWriMo writing circles also gave me a chance to learn more about their Young Writers Program for kids and teens. It looks like an energizing and creative way to engage young writers. I’d encourage any teacher out there, reading this post, to incorporate this into next year’s Language Arts syllabus.

I end today’s piece in a dedication, with love, with compassion, and with inspiration to all the children and teachers of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT.

On a holiday note: All of us at the Fairfield Writer’s Blog wish you a peaceful season and a New Year filled with hope.

Until next time, keep on writing.

A Writer’s Website: Part Five

Hello to all you writers out there! This is Adair Heitmann reminding you that one of the most important ways to build your author’s platform is to have a website. Your website can be as simple as a one-pager, or more elaborate with videos, social media plug-ins and e-books. I’m glad to be able to continue to help you take manageable steps in creating your website. Please go to June 2011 for Part One, then proceed to July, August and September 2011 for earlier information on building an author’s website. Like a proud new mama, I’m happy to announce that I finished my own website makeover, and it’s serving me well. The time I spent researching what I wanted in the revised site, learning new technology, and making it happen, paid off. Did I have moments when I pulled my hair out in frustration? Yes, but the end product has been worth the grief, like labor in childbirth.

Today I’ll share information for those of you who want to keep the hairs on your head and prefer to hire out. You can do so by hiring a web developer, a web designer or both. Or as a member of my writing critique group did, get by with a little help from her friends. Find tech-savvy friends to do the technical pieces for you.

First let’s clarify terms:
1. Web developer – knows the tools of the techno trade, usually has several already prepared themes for you to choose from, and can technically provide you with what you ask for. A web developer can provide some customization. In the Northeast an average hourly rate is $40/hour.
2. Web designer – is more of a, just what the name implies, designer, someone who knows the graphic and artistic end of website communication. A web designer can create a unique website. Again it depends on the part of the country that you live in, but here in the Northeast an average hourly rate is $75/hour.

What stays the same is that you, the writer, need to research what you want. You’ll want to give the developer or designer your website wish list. This way, you are in the driver’s seat. You’ll also want to think about if you want to update the site yourself. If so, you’ll need a CMS (Content Management System) type of site. Remember that once your website is up and running, if you don’t have a CMS site, you will be paying your developer or designer a fee for every update.

This brings us to cost:
1. Know your budget and respond accordingly.
2. Research other writers that you know, if you like their website, ask them how much their website cost.
3. Find out the name of the developer/designer and get an estimate from them. Ask them to include future revisions, and update charges.
4. Since more and more people are using mobile devices, be sure to ask your developer/designer if the layout will look good and work efficiently on smart phones.

A cost estimate for a simple 5-page website can run approximately $500.00 and up.

Last but not least, be sure you love your site. An author’s website is a writer’s online face to the world. You want to make the best first impression you can.

Until next time, keep on writing!

A NaNoWriMo Virgin No More

Hello to all you writers out there, this is Adair Heitmann writing today about my NaNoWriMo experience. Last October’s blog shared information about November being National Novel Writing Month. The contest is billed as “Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon.” It hosted 337,618 writers from 45 countries this year. The purpose of the challenge was to complete a new 50,000 word novel in one month.

Imagine all those writers feverishly writing within the same erudite community during the same month. How could anyone not be psyched? I certainly was. Becoming a member of this intergenerational writing society was so cool! As authors we are often alone at our kitchen tables writing longhand on yellow legal-size pads, as our dishwashers churn away. Or, with open laptops, sitting isolated in a busy coffee shop, hammering out our stories, while blends of French Roast fill the air. Being an active participant in the NaNoWriMo literary adventure helped me feel a part of something larger and greater than just me.

However, I knew from the start that I only had time to brush the surface with NaNoWriMo this year. With my other professional deadlines and personal responsibilities, writing a new novel 2-3 hours a day would be out of the question. But I still wanted to play. I figured, I may as well enter and see what NaNoWriMo was all about from the inside. I had a ball, and the memories from my month are keeping me all a-flutter.

The entry form asked for a genre, which made me pause and think. As a mostly non-fiction author, how did I want to spend my infinitesimal NaNoWriMo fiction prose time? It was a toss-up between Satire, Humor & Parody or Erotic Fiction. Going into this with an open mind and a cavalier attitude helped free me up to recognize that I had nothing to lose. I may as well stretch my creative muscles, and write something outside my comfort-zone.

As November progressed I straddled my world of by day being a mild-mannered literary consultant and by night flying wildly in free expression. This lack of inhibition, however, caused me to be confronted with literary questions that I don’t ordinarily have to face.
1. As an author of non-fiction, my articles, books, essays, and blogs don’t require a disclaimer. But as I wrote in my chosen NaNoWriMo genre I started to realize that I may want to change my name. You see, I need my day job and wasn’t sure if the genre of my fictional piece would jeopardize it. Entering “NaNoWriMo-Land” had really inspired me to let my hair down, I’d become downright reckless.
2. As a parent of a budding teenager, I wondered if what I was writing might be an embarrassment.  I can mortify my child very easily on my own without intentionally adding to it.

Then, through a Facebook connection I learned of a writing contest in one of my genres of choice. Hmmmmmmm, could I be published and paid very nicely for my new novel? I wondered that I might be able to pay for my child’s college education by writing with such freedom and frivolity.  November found me juiced up every time I sat down and wrote.  I didn’t even need an oven; the heat coming off my pages cooked the Thanksgiving turkey. Then I got to wondering, with all the time and effort I’ve spent building my writer’s platform with my real name, if I had a nom de plume for this new genre I’d have to start creating an entirely new writer’s platform for my pen name. Oh, when would I find the time?

My NaNoWriMo month ended as I finished fleshing out tantalizing characters, entwined with moments of dizzying delights. At the end of the contest, I leaned back, inhaled deeply, and smoked a cigarette. My month was like a good one-night-stand, filled with tantalizing memories, but I didn’t end up marrying the man. Will I date him in 2012? You bet I will. Delving into fun fiction was like stroking my hand along luxurious silk. Could I wear it every day in my active life? No. But would I put it on for certain occasions? Yes, oh yes.

As 2011 draws to a close, all of us at the Fairfield Writer’s Blog wish you a very happy holiday season. May Santa fill your stocking with your heart’s desires, and may the New Year bring you ecstatic hours of literary abandon.

Until next year, keep on writing!


Hello from Adair Heitmann. Are you finding ways to stay cool and focused this summer?

I’ll continue my ongoing blog about creating a writer’s website later in August, when I’ll post A Writer’s Website: Part Three. For now if you are new to this blog you can find parts one and two on June 3 and July 1, 2011.

For today’s post I’ll share a quote and let you know of some upcoming writing events.

“Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence. ” -Helen Keller

I hope to see you on Tuesday night August 9 at 7pm at Darien Library where I’ll be presenting Create a Writer’s Platform: Why You Need One and How to Build It. The program is part of their Adult Reading You’re Connected series. We will have fun and I’ll share hints and tips on building your writing platform. You will walk away with clarity and useable information.

Then on November 1 and 8, (mark your calendars now!) I’ll be back at the Fairfield Public Library giving a two-part program, Write On! Hands-on Help in Building Your Writer’s Platform at 7pm both nights. Bring paper, pen (or your laptop) and an open mind, the programs will be part lecture, part inspiring writing exercises.

Until next time, stay cool, find new ways to connect with your readers, and keep on writing!

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 4:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Creating Your Writer’s Platform

Hello to all you writers out there, it’s Adair Heitmann here writing to you on this snowy winter day about: Writer’s Platforms. If you are anything like I was a few years ago I was overwhelmed by the programs at writing conferences and articles in the press about “Literary Platforms.” At the time I didn’t think I had one, wasn’t sure exactly what one was, or even how to go about getting one. I took dubious notes, listened to keynote speakers and was still like a deer in the headlights.

Then it dawned on me, a writing platform is simply a tool you use to promote yourself and your writing. It can be in person, online or a combination of both. A writer’s platform is a marketing term to get known before you get published. This way agents, editors, publicists have more confidence that you have a following before they commit to your project.

After spending dedicated time and focus building my platform, now I think of my writing platform in metaphorical terms. It’s like a swimming platform. My writing platform is solid, I can go to it for safety, it’s out there working for me even as I rest. I can hang onto it or sunbathe, even dive and jump from it in joy and abandon. It’s a springboard for all my writing endeavors.

Basic First Steps in Creating Your Writer’s Platform:

1. Network, go to conferences and programs.

2. Have business cards printed up and use them. A cost-effective online solution is Vistaprint.

3. Create an effective and accurate email signature, this way your platform is always working for you every time you send an email.

4. Increase your online presence with a website, and with blogs and tweets.

5. Figure out your specialty or niche and build around that.

If you want more in-depth information about how to build a writer’s platform and have fun doing it, be sure to sign up for the Writer’s Platform program at the Fairfield Public Library on Tuesday February 15, 2011, 7pm. I will teach you everything you ever wanted to know about writing platforms and you will leave inspired.

Until then, keep on writing!

Published in: on January 26, 2011 at 2:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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