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Turn Your Diary into Dollars
by Beth Fowler

Keeping a diary or journal primes the creativity pump, and those of you following Julia Cameron's advice in The Artist's Way, jot daily. Diary entries can be honed into saleable manuscripts, so if you're not recording your life, you might want to start now.

Here's what you need to know to break into this increasingly popular field of literature.

Q. Who's making money publishing stuff from their diaries?

A. Pulitzer prizewinner Dave I'm-not-making-this-up Barry, Miami Herald (http://www.miami.com/herald/special/features/barry) columnist and author of numerous nonfiction books; Annie Dillard(http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~sparks/dillard/bio.htm), also a Pulitzer recipient for nonfiction; Writing for Dollars! (Issue 04101) contributor Kathryn Fay with 450-plus personal experience articles sold; and multi-award winner William Least Heat-Moon (http://www.heat-moon.com) are among the multitude of writers turning diary entries into dollars.

Q. Who buys nonfiction personal experience manuscripts?

A. Publishers of memoirs, autobiographies and themed anthologies, newspapers and magazines of every category including ones that don't specifically solicit readers' stories, and literary journals like Granta (http://www.granta.com) and Creative Nonfiction Journal (http://www.creativenonfiction.org) buy manuscripts. CNJ editor Lee Gutkind wants essays with "purpose and meaning beyond the experiences related by the writers. Good essays embrace a larger audience. They strike a universal chord."

Q. What's "creative nonfiction"?

A. Creative nonfiction encompasses true stories in which authors incorporate scenes, dialogue, evocative descriptions and other techniques fictioneers use.

Q. What can I write about that strikes a universal chord?

A. Unforgettable encounters, life's milestones (birth, adoption, illness, death), disasters, work relationships, any aspect of human experience. "You have to be willing to use everything. Everything that's interesting," Truman Capote told Patti Davis, according to her autobiography, The Way I See It.

Q. Any guidance on how to write true stories?

A. Booker prizewinner Margaret Atwood said, "The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself." Dig into Bliss: Writing to Find Your True Self by Katherine M. Ramsland, A Walk Between Heaven and Earth: A Personal Journal on Writing and the Creative Process by Burghild Nina Holzer or Pencil Dancing: New Ways to Free your Creative Spirit by Mari Messer for inspiration to write in your journal.

Q. How can I record material with sales potential?

A. Try these techniques:

  • Timely notes become a goldmine when you set out to write creative nonfiction. So when an event is imminent, record your fears, hopes, misgivings, expectations, preparations, likely scenarios. Then write about the event as it unfolds and the aftermath.

  • Write how you discovered a truth about life, yourself, a parent, the ways of the world, a natural law, animals, aging, anger, and anchovies. What insight did the discovery reveal? With this insight, what new direction did you take?

  • Write stories recounting when you were inspired, shocked, convinced to change a long-held opinion, or profoundly embarrassed.

  • In Your Life as Story Tristine Rainer suggests writing about a problem, your struggle to resolve it, and the resultant transformation or realization.

  • Note witty, wise, wacky, wild and weird tidbits you think up and hear.

Q. How do writers structure diary entries into salable manuscripts?

A. A reader complimented creative nonfiction writer Helen Garner for turning "a little bit of nothing" into a story. To turn nothings into the favorably reviewed Half Baked in Taiwan (http://www.xlibris.com/HalfBakedinTaiwan.html), I used numerous devices.

  • Condensing time highlights cause and effect and makes a long story short. You could condense an argument that developed over a series of lunches down to one meal. One setting is less confusing and frees authors from setting new scenes. Condensed time creates dramatic tension that communicates theme better than flabby stories do.

  • Rearranging events shapes material into a beginning, middle and end or an incline with a denouement on the tail. Shape is also achieved with emphasis, word choice, rhythm, sentence structure, dialogue and narrative.

  • Reorganizing nonfiction material chronologically, spatially, thematically, topically and combinations thereof are useful formats.

  • Knowing that readers enjoy recognizing characters when they reappear in later scenes and that a crowded stage becomes unmanageable, I combined people with similar dramatic roles into one character.

  • Incorporating advertising jargon, newspaper excerpts, book passages and colorful snippets from other sources helped me illustrate points, capture unique aspects of place, re-create atmosphere and bolster impressions with evidence. To vary voice and point of view, I occasionally cast myself as listener as others told their stories.

  • Ruthless pruning, chopping and transplanting eliminates deadwood.

Q. Where can I learn how to polish diary scribblings into salable gems?

A. Pore over Nancy Davidoff's Writing from Personal Experience: How to Turn Your Life into Salable Prose, Gay Talese and Barbara Lounsberry's Writing Creative Nonfiction: The Literature of Reality, Bill Roorbach's Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth, Lee Gutkind's The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality. Click on Goucher's Master of Arts in Creative Nonfiction at http://www.goucher.edu, visit Pitt's http://www.pitt.edu/~bahst29/pubcnf.html and surf Gotham Writers Workshop at http://www.write.org for education programs. Choose "silent mentors" whose works resemble the way you'd like to write. Analyze why the writing appeals to you, how it's structured and the fictional techniques employed to make truth shine. Candidates for silent mentors include Anne Lamott (Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son's First Year) Lewis Grizzard (If I Ever Get Back to Georgia, I'm Gonna Nail My Feet to the Ground) Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence), Peter Matthiessen (The Snow Leopard) and contributors to reputable periodicals such as Atlantic Monthly, Salon and New Yorker.

Q. How "warts and all" should I write?

A. Expose your warts. (Readers will empathize with you.) Edit as though people mentioned will read the manuscript in your presence and will recognize themselves. Read about defamation of character at http://www.dancingwithlawyers.com/freeinfo/libel.shtml. If in doubt, cut it out.

Q. What else?

A. Write with the reporter's unbiased thoroughness. Rewrite with the storyteller's flair. Let story be refracted through personality. Target appropriate markets. You will have succeeded if readers can distill the universal from the personal.

One small event for a human: One great read for humans. That’s creative nonfiction. That's turning your diary into dollars.

© Copyright 2001, Beth Fowler

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