Tips for Self-Editing Narrative Nonfiction

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A few weekends ago I attended a workshop on "Creating a Movie in the Reader's Mind: Self-editing for Narrative Nonfiction Writers." The workshop was sponsored by Oregon Writers Colony with C. Lill Ahrens serving as workshop leader.

Initially the title for the workshop left me wondering what I would hear, see, learn in this single day. When I left after seven hours, I carried away a more information than I imagined possible.

Ahrens came ready to teach, and we came to learn.

I've impatiently waited to share some of the tips I learned. These may seem obvious to some readers, but often they slip my mind while writing.

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  • Attention to chronology. While your plot in narrative nonfiction may leap back and forth in time, a scene should roll in linear fashion like a movie from beginning to end. The use of chronology lends itself to the continual construction of tension. Something like a large rock gathering moss as it rolls downhill, or a skyscraper reaching into the sky.Once completed, your finished work provides effortless reading for the reader. Don't make the reader continually back up to make a sense of your story.
  • Attention to Story Information. The writer's goal is to keep the reader engaged in your movie (turning the pages) until the credits begin to roll. Misplaced or missing information important to the story confuses and distracts readers, and they may wander off to see what's in the fridge or pick up another book.

Important components to check:

Transition Back story Back fill Inner monologue/running thoughts Setting/visual imagery Mood

Emotional truth: This component is so important, especially to those of us writing memoir, it needs to receive special attention. First of all, don't confuse emotional truth with "emotional." In a movie, emotional truth travels through the methods of the actors. In the written word, everything can have emotional truth--weather, setting, animals, inanimate objects, everything. The POV character's thoughts and actions will be the most psychologically complex of all emotional truths shared.

Bottom line: Emotional truth gets stories and books published.

  • Attention to Theme. Have you ever walked out of a movie theater feeling, "Huh?" Do you ever wonder why? Likely, because that movie didn't end on theme. Unfortunately, "theme" can be a problematic word with many definitions. In writing narrative nonfiction, theme is not the motif, not the moral, not the message. The theme in this case is the major emotional issue of the story.

Caution: Theme is not to be confused with genre. Any love story can be classified true story, memoir, fiction, horror, mystery, historical fiction, etc.

Using narrative nonfiction, your true story can explore different aspects of theme, most importantly its opposite. Think of your theme paired with its opposite. Using my memoir as an example, my theme is forgiveness; therefore, I pair my theme of forgiveness with childhood cruelty inflicted by my mother.

Theme in any writing is with you in the beginning of your story, then is sprinkled throughout, and your story closes with your theme.

Of all the writing tools we have at our disposal, theme is likely the most important. Theme adds depth to our stories. Theme is the connector in our stories, tying all the parts together. In this way, our readers come away from turning that last page feeling satisfied.

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Represented here are just a few of the most important ideas covered during this daylong workshop. I hope that something here has resonated with you in respect to whatever project you are working on currently.

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Biography for C. Lill Ahrens:

C. Lill Ahrens is the contest director for Oregon Writers Colony, an editor for Calyx Journala creative writing instructor for Linn-Benton Community College in Linn and Benton Counties, Oregon, and a freelance editorial consultant and writing coach with award-winning, published clients and students. Her own award-winning stories are published in numerous literary journals and anthologies, including Best Women's Travel Writing(Travelers Tales).

Ahrens' website is brand new and still a work in progress, but you can still visit at C. Lill Ahrens.