The Memoir Writer’s Hidden Nerve by Susan G. Weidener

Today my guest is Susan G. Weidener, author of A Portrait of Love and Honor: A Novel Based on a True Story, her first novel based on a true story. In addition, Susan has written two memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Dating Again and Morning at Wellington Square.
As part of her WOW! Women on Writing blog tour, Susan shares her thoughts on the memoir writer’s hidden nerve. Please join us in the comment section to share your own thoughts on this topic.

Welcome, Susan!

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Author Susan Weidener

All writers have “a hidden nerve,” a “secret chamber” which stirs their prose. For some, the hidden nerve is so deep, they can’t write about it – not yet.

When we look at ourselves in the mirror, what do we see?  A reflection? Who are we? Who are the people we write about? Is our honesty compromised in an attempt to “protect” them and/or family secrets and myths? Do we undermine our writing by trying to protect ourselves and others?

It’s easy to confess. Introspection takes a whole lot more courage. Sometimes we don’t even know what we want or need to confess. In A Portrait of Love and Honor, Ava asks Jay what drew him back to West Point year after year even after he kept experiencing pain and rejection. At first, he tells her it was always his “dream” to attain “those gold lieutenant bars.”

As he works with her on his memoir, he begins to realize that it goes much deeper . . . that there were spoken and unspoken messages and expectations by his strong-willed mother. Jay begins to understand that it was his mother’s “dream” to move beyond the immigrant experience and become part of the American success story. “I suppose if my mother could say her son graduated West Point then it would make up for her own disappointments,” Jay tells Ava. And if he dropped out of West Point, he ultimately disappointed and defeated her.

In my memoirs Again in a Heartbeat and Morning at Wellington Square, I write about a woman in white wedding gown who believed that good things come to good people – she believed life was something she could control  . . . until her illusion is shattered by illness and death. As I wrote my memoirs, I wrestled with my guilt and shame. Why had I not been a better wife to my husband at the end of his life? Why had I blamed him, not the disease for shattering my dreams of happily-ever-after?

In writing my memoir, I dropped the pretense that I was ‘perfect’ and tried to make peace with my own unique quirks and flaws . . . and in the process, forgive myself. I had been hard on John because I was losing my dreams and youth.  There were other revelations, too.  John was irreplaceable, but that didn’t mean I wouldn’t do it all over again in a heartbeat.

The “hidden nerve” is what makes us tick as writers . . . it’s what makes us want to write our stories.  It’s what memoir writers wish to uncover. dividerAbout A Portrait of Love and Honor: A Novel Based on a True Story

A Portrait of Love and Honor by Susan G. WeidenerNewly-divorced and on her own, 40-something Ava Stuart forges a new life. One day, at a signing in the local library for her novel, a tall, dark-haired man walks in and stands in the back of the room. Jay Scioli is a wanderer – a man who has said good-bye to innocence, the U. S. Army, and corporate America. His outlook on life having changed, his health shattered by illness, he writes a memoir. In his isolation, he searches for an editor to help him pick up the loose ends. Time may be running out. He is drawn to the striking and successful Ava. Facing one setback after another, their love embraces friendship, crisis, dignity, disillusionment. Their love story reflects a reason for living in the face of life’s unexpected events.

Based on a true story, A Portrait of Love and Honor takes the reader from the halls of the United States Military Academy at West Point during the Vietnam War to a moving love story between two people destined to meet.

Note: If you wish, you can read my review of A Portrait of Love and Honor: A Novel Based on a True Story at this link.

Get to Know Susan G. Weidener:

Susan G. Weidener is a former journalist with The Philadelphia Inquirer. She has interviewed a host of interesting people from all walks of life, including Guy Lombardo, Bob Hope, Leonard Nimoy, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and Mary Pipher.  She left journalism in 2007 and after attending a women’s writing retreat, wrote and published her memoir, Again in a Heartbeat, a memoir of love, loss and dating again, about being widowed at a young age. Two years later, she wrote and published its sequel, Morning at Wellington Square, a woman’s search for passion and renewal in middle age. Her novel, A Portrait of Love and Honor, completes the trilogy, inspired by and dedicated to her late husband, John M. Cavalieri, on whose memoir the novel is based.  Susan earned a BA in Literature from American University and a master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania. An editor, writing coach and teacher of writing workshops, she founded the Women’s Writing Circle, a support and critique group for writers in suburban Philadelphia. She lives in Chester Springs, PA.  Her website is:  www.susanweidener.com.

You can connect with Susan via:

https://twitter.com/Sweideheart
http://www.susanweidener.com/
http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B004G7AXQY
https://www.facebook.com/susan.weidener

dividerWhere You Can Purchase A Portrait of Love and Honor:

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7 Reasons Good Writers Need Beta Readers

When you hear the word “beta,” what comes to mind?

A variety of uses are made of the word “beta,” and it’s not always what you think:

In today’s world, built primarily on technology, a beta may be an individual or company testing a proposed software, a new type of computer, a high-tech phone system, or any number of other devices.

Taking second place is often where beta finds itself, especially in the Greek alphabet where beta is the second letter, β. Then there is the capitalized form of Beta representing the second brightest star in a constellation or in chemistry where it means the second in any series of compounds in an atom.

Kampffisch aka betta splendens
Kampffisch aka betta splendens

And, of course, there is the beta fish, sometimes spelled betta, an often savage and warrior-like fish sold in pet stores. Our son raised some of these in his teens, and their beauty does not make up for their rude personalities.

But what if we add the word “reader” to the word “beta” to invoke the name of one of the most important members of your writing team?

You may be asking the definition of that name or label, a job description of this new team member, and other questions. Hopefully, the tips below will answer your questions.

But first, the definition of a beta reader:

A beta reader reviews a writer’s manuscript elements such as plot development, character descriptions and motivations, general readability, grammar, and logical inconsistencies. The writer may ask the beta reader to do all these things or limit the read to certain specific elements.

Note that beta reading is the step coming before the pre-publication edit done by someone with excellent professional editing skills.

With that definition in mind, what should a writer expect a beta reader to do?

Below are the 7 tips mentioned in the post title and promised earlier. These are taken from beta reading requests I have responded to, and they are what I would expect a beta reader to do for me:

Present in a considerate, tactful and diplomatic manner recommendations and feedback. This is an area where the reader should not be too direct or action-oriented in choosing words in preparing his opinions. A good beta reader makes suggestions, not directions, instructions or complaints. Recommendations or comments sent back to a writer should not produce negative reactions on the part of the writer.

Make personal observations as “asides,” if appropriate. These comments are helpful only if the writer understands they are not a part of your recommendations/feedback and are your personal reactions and feelings. Let’s say a particular character behaves in such a way you feel sorry for him. Tell the writer about the empathetic response you feel toward this character and why. Perhaps the writer did not intend the character to come across in this way. The reader’s personal reaction highlights this issue and in making this comment, the reader has alerted the writer so changes may be made. Or perhaps a certain scene wasn’t working for you. Passing this along with a good explanation will be helpful to the writer in reviewing that scene.

Perform a second reading and focus on specifics requested by the writer, making notes along the way. Recently, a writer requested “thorough” read, i.e. reviewing the elements above (see definition), and additionally based on my comments back to her, she queried me about some changes she was considering. Another writer pointed out she wasn’t looking for copy edits or proofing and provided a concise list of what she did want me to do. Each writer will have a particular process for moving the book toward publication. Each one will present a beta reader with different needs and requests.

Read the manuscript through for fun. That’s right — I said FUN! During this reading,  a beta reader should get lost in the story or in the purpose if reading a nonfiction book. After all, this allows the reader to report back accurately on how the book may or may not be received by the reading public. Here, the reader captures a general feel for the story line and characters while looking for any issues that disturb the reader’s ability to follow the story. Example: A character makes a sudden appearance on page 125 and is mentioned as having done a particular thing. Yet, the reader doesn’t recall having met that character in the earlier 124 pages.

Tell the writer when a particular character resonates with the reader or if a scene is especially moving. We all need to know when something is working well, and it costs us nothing to share the goodness along with the potential criticisms and errors that might be found and included in a reader’s response back to a writer. A good beta reader begins and ends his opinions with some of these good points and positives.

Point out issues not included in writer’s requests, when suitable.  If the reader notices an issue not included in the writer’s requested actions, it is permissible to it in the feedback. Example:Perhaps POV wasn’t included in the list. Suddenly, the writer is switching back and forth between first and third person. Or it takes too long at the beginning of the book to sense any action.

Here come’s the test of a goodbeta reader — the ability to be as tactful and diplomatic as anyone serving as the U.S. Ambassador to a foreign country. The reader is respectful in explaining what he discovered and why it is included it in the feedback provided. And this is the perfect segue into the next point.

And then, sit on recommendations, comments and/or feedback for at least two days before sending to the writer. This allows the reader time to step away and then re-read the work product. The reader can then assess her reactions if it were her work being read and commented on: Does anything raise negativity? Is anything too harsh? Are comments clear and to the point? How would I feel reading these comments about my work?

The beta reader and writer relationship is different from almost any other writing relationship and where it comes in the process of a writing project and how it performs depends on what the writer wants from the beta reader and what the reader is capable of offering. As in any working relationship, this is negotiable between the parties.

What I have offered today is based on my own opinions and beta reading process seeded in what I would expect from a beta reader if it were my book being read and what I want to give to writers who seek me out as a beta reader.

Inherent in the relationship between beta reader and the author are seen the reasons every good writer needs to engage one or more beta readers.

Let’s close this post with a couple of quotes on beta readers:

Basically, the more eyes the book goes through before publication, the fewer issues you will have later; and hopefully, the better the reviews are.” ~ Joanna Penn, Writer, Speaker and Blogger

“Beta readers provide us differing viewpoints and show us flaws in our own work that we were incapable of seeing ourselves.” Chuck Sambuchino, Writer and Editor

(Quotes from WOW! Women on Writing)

If you have had any experiences using beta readers, how has it worked for you and your beta reader? Did you offer a list? Did you receive what you expected, or perhaps not? Anything you can share will help those reading this post.

How to Be True to Both the Living and the Dead in Memoir by Guest David W. Berner

Today my guest is David W. Berner, author of Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons, recipient of a Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers AssociationAs part of his WOW! Women on Writing blog tour, David shares his thoughts on how to be true to both the living and the dead when writing memoir.  Join us in the comment section to share your own thoughts on this topic.

Welcome, David!

Author David W. Berner
Author David W. Berner

There’s an exchange in my memoir Any Road Will Take You There between my father and me as we sit at my kitchen table late one night. My young child, my first, and their mother are in bed. The two of us are alone drinking bottles of beer and talking about my new role, fatherhood. It’s a key scene in the book. Still, no one else but the two of us could have remembered that conversation.

I wrote about that moment after my father had died. So, I had to recall a decade old dialogue the best I could and rely on only my shaky memory. I didn’t expect to recall our exact conversation, of course, and honestly didn’t need to, but I was determined to write about that night in the truest, most authentic way. I wanted to capture the essence of that evening. Of course I had only my own recollections. But is that fair? Doesn’t Dad have a say here? And how could he have a say now?

There is no other way to a write a personal story than to tell it like it is. But what if you can’t run the details by someone, check the facts? First of all, you are not writing journalism, but you do want to recreate the spirit of the truth. Be honest with your story, honest with what you remember, and even if others have passed on and you can’t verify, try to step away to consider other perspectives. I truly believe the reader will know when you are not being honest with yourself, and ultimately will sense when you are not being honest or mindful of how another may have remembered that moment, incident, or conversation.

And what about the living?

In my first memoir, Accidental Lessons, there are several scenes with my ex-wife. First, I must tell you, the two of us are good friends. It is far from the stereotypical friction laden relationship of former spouses. Despite this, my publisher insisted on signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book. When I presented the release to my former wife, this is what she said: I’ll agree with one condition. When it’s made into a movie, Susan Sarandon plays me.

Just for the record, no movie deal yet and nothing in writing from Susan.

In general, I believed everything I wrote about my ex-wife was quite flattering. It wasn’t that I necessarily set out to write all great things about her, it’s just that what was needed for the narrative, her part of it, did not need to be about the times of our lives that were entangled in disagreement. So, when she read the manuscript, she had little problem with any of it. Was it true? Yes. I needed to reveal only what was needed.

But what do you do when someone you write about is absolutely appalled by what you plan to publish or is outright angry about your words? Maybe their version of the same incident is much different in their eyes, and this creates serious tension, risking the relationship with that individual.

If possible, let all those who are main subjects in the story read your manuscript. Prepare them for what you have written; let them know it may not be easy to read and that you are writing about difficult matters. Then, allow them to tell you exactly what they think, to point out errors, minor or major, and permit them to suggest changes. And if possible, ask them to write down their version of the scene or incident in question. Our truths are completely our own. They are no one else’s, and you must be true to your story. But permitting input from others can help you understand their truth, and some version of their story might actually be very good material to add to a redraft. It could, and many times will make your story better.

In the end, the narrative is your responsibility and you alone should decide whether or not to include others’ suggestions, thoughts, or versions. In the end, no matter what, the story you have written is yours. Keep it yours.

Get to Know David Berner:

David W. Berner–the award winning author of Accidental Lessons and Any Road Will Take You There–was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he began his work as a broadcast journalist and writer. He moved to Chicago to work as a radio reporter and news anchor for CBS Radio and later pursue a career as a writer and educator. His book Accidental Lessons is about his year teaching in one of the Chicago area’s most troubled school districts. The book won the Golden Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature and has been called a “beautiful, elegantly written book” by award-winning author Thomas E. Kennedy, and “a terrific memoir” by Rick Kogan (Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio). Any Road Will Take You There is the author’s story of a 5000-mile road trip with his sons and the revelations of fatherhood. The memoir has been called “heartwarming and heartbreaking” and “a five-star wonderful read.”

David can be found online at:

Website: www.davidwberner.com Twitter: @davidwberner Twitter: @anyroadbook Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/David-W-Berner-Writer/190345939480 Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/david.w.berner

A Brief Look at David’s Memoir:

Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and SonsAny Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story told with humor and grace, revealing the generational struggles and triumphs of being a dad, and the beautiful but imperfect ties that connect all of us.

Recipient of a Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association, Any Road Will Take You There is honest, unflinching, and tender.

In the tradition of the Great American Memoir, a middle-age father takes the reader on a five-thousand-mile road trip–the one he always wished he’d taken as a young man. Recently divorced and uncertain of the future, he rereads the iconic road story–Jack Kerouac’s On the Road–and along with his two sons and his best friend, heads for the highway to rekindle his spirit.

However, a family secret turns the cross-country journey into an unexpected examination of his role as a father, and compels him to look to the past and the fathers who came before him to find contentment and clarity, and celebrate the struggles and triumphs of being a dad.

Paperback: 242 Pages
Genre: Memoir
Publisher: Dream of Things (September 17, 2014)
ASIN: B00NVBMDZ0 / ISBN-10: 0988439093 / ISBN-13: 978-0988439092

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Beta Readers’ List of Don’ts | Writers’ Expectations (Part 2 of 2)

Last week I posted on what beta readers do. This week we’ll take a look at what they don’t do and what writers expect of a beta reader.

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In the last post we determined what beta readers are not:

Beta readers are not fish, or fishy! By Kingloovr (modified) via Wikimedia Commons
Beta readers are not fish, or fishy! By Kingloovr (modified) via Wikimedia Commons
  • A beta reader is not related to the fish of the same name, i.e. beta or betta.
  • Nor is a beta reader a part of any alphabet, Greek or otherwise, and he or she has no need for membership in The National Beta Club.
  • And we eliminated any relationship to any star in any constellation or in chemistry compounds.

The write-beta reader partnership is a unique relationship. It is an agreement to carry out a set of instructions provided by the writer.

The point of the work effort is for the beta reader to see with a different set of eyes what the writer’s work looks like to an outside reader.

That being said, each party to this relationship has certain responsibilities. From the earlier post, we know what beta readers do. Now let’s look at what beta readers don’t do:

  • Don’tmake insensitive comments. Attacking the writer is not requested or required of you.
  • Don’tgive your own opinion of how you would write the book. How the book finishes is the writer’s prerogative and decision. Not yours.
  • Don’tlimit your reaction to a list of “here’s what you need to do.” Also give comments on what you enjoyed, what moved you, what you thought was well done. We all respond to positives, and the writer needs to hear these.
  • Don’ttake it personally if your suggestions and/or comments are not incorporated. Here again the writer is in charge of the finished product and therefore, h/she has the right to choose which beta reader suggestions make it into the book.
  • Don’tassume the writer has passed along every bit of information you need. Ask questions if you need to clarify a point on your list of responsibilities to the writer. It never hurts to ask.

And let’s not forget that the writer requesting help from a beta reader also has responsibilities. In order to have expectations met, a writer needs to offer clear and concise instructions. 

Attribution: Hakan Dahlstrom via Fotomedia
Attribution: Hakan Dahlstrom via Fotomedia

A writer will expect to receive the following from a good beta reader:

  • Expect to look beyond family and friends to enjoy a completely unbiased and fair assessment of your project. If you are comfortable with using family or friends, that is a personal choice, but not highly recommended.
  • Expect both positive comments and some suggested “areas of improvement.” If you believe your work is perfect, do not engage a beta reader. Remember, every work could use improvement.
  • Expect to feel some emotional reaction, perhaps any negativity, on reading your beta reader’s comments. This is perfectly normal. Have some dark chocolate, a cup of coffee. Go for a stroll in the park. Release that initial tension.
  • Expect an urge to respond to the reader right away. STOP! No knee jerk reactions should send you to the keyboard to type out an email or to write a blog post about a bad beta reader. Set aside the comments for a day or two or more. When you feel ready, pick them up again and read them. And remember you wanted an honest opinion. Perhaps a calmer you will see that your reader has some good points, and perhaps you’ll begin to think of ways you want to respond.
  • Expect your beta reader to help you make your story better. The beta reader is not in place to “fix” your story. After all, he or she is not a ghost writer. You handed off your baby to see what other eyes could see. Now that you have responses in hand set about thanking your readers and revising that manuscript.
  • Expect and be ready to give your beta reader certain information about your project.
    • How far along you are, i.e. fourth or fifth draft or more.
    • What kind of review you want, i.e. broad or detailed with specific requests.
    • Your genre, i.e. memoir, fiction, etc. Although your reader may not write in your genre, knowing the genre helps to know what to be aware of while reading.
    • Specific time frame for turnaround, i.e. 4-6 weeks. Pssst! Beta readers have lives too. Be respectful here.
    • Software you are using and decide how you will receive your comments, i.e. track changes or in a document format.
    • Reciprocity, i.e. will you read for this reader when the time comes or will you perhaps exchange another skill. Whatever you decide, remember to follow through!

If you have read both posts, you should have a good overview of what beta readers do and don’t do and what writers’ expectations are.

As a writer, do you have expectations not mentioned here. Or as a beta reader, is there something you’d like to comment on with respect to-dos and don’ts? 

Today, Porter Anderson has the last word on this topic:

“You see a lot of ‘I love my beta readers!’ traffic online, which is heartening. But as in the case of good editing, strong pre-publication reading needs to offer insightful reaction and guidance. Encouragement is great. Actual evaluation is better. The best work at this stage of a project is less about supportive community and more about critique.” ~ Porter Anderson on Publishing Perspectives

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NEXT UP: Knowing When It’s Time to Take a Breather coming up on Thursday, August 29th.