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I am in the process of figuring out how to write a mostly autobiographical piece (maybe, eventually, novel) about my experiences related to dancing (Swing, Blues, and a little Hip-Hop, in case you were wondering). My basic structure follows two story lines: the first being my experience at a particular dance event, and the second being the history of how I started and progressed in dancing.

My problem is that every time I get into writing any part of the second story line, I question whether it's even interesting. At all. I wonder if I'm losing focus and describing too much of the personal relationships that are tangent to the main theme (dancing).

On the other hand, part of my reasoning for writing this piece is to describe how I relate to the world, and how dancing has shaped my personal relationships. Or, in some cases, how my personal relationships have shaped my dancing.

To put it specifically, I'm wondering if there's a way to tell if I'm striking a good balance. Is this self-doubt simply part of the process? Is the only way to figure it out simply to write, and then go through the editing and revising processes?

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5 Answers 5

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Ryan, you cannot guess what will be interesting to your readers. Viktor Frankl, when he wrote his classic book "Man's search for meaning", didn't want to share his personal story first, as he thought it would look like he wanted sympathy, and distract from his message. Yet because of his personal story, his book became a best seller, and helped expand his theory into a major psychological discipline.

In your case, if you leave out the personal story, it may just become a dance manual. The personal story is as important as the dancing part.

You may have self doubt, but slog through it, till you have a rough draft. Then show it to people and get their feedback - you might be surprised. You may think your life and relationships were uninteresting, but to an accountant who spends 8 hours updating commas on his spreadsheet ( apologies to any accountants here :) ), your life maybe as exciting as James Bond.

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If you think there is too much exposition, there probably is. Then again, even if you don't think so, the reader may. The fact that you are questioning is the important part. Asking these questions forces you to make choices. Making decisions (and sticking to them) is a crucial part of the process.

I would say that pretty much anything can be interesting if made interesting. It's a cliché, but make sure you are showing, not telling. If you are immersing the reader in your world by showing them what happened (as opposed to giving them a list of events), you have a much better chance of keeping the reader's interest. Don't give them exposition, show them the events.

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+1 for the "show, don't tell". I feel like it's difficult to work in to what amounts to a history of a portion of my life, but is probably necessary. –  Ryan Kinal Jun 10 '11 at 11:28
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Remember that you don't need do to add the history all at once. You only need it when it's pertinent. This is a good way to keep from rambling as well. Only give the background as necessary to keep the story moving. But remember that your reader is smart and they can fill in some of the blanks as well. –  Joel Shea Jun 15 '11 at 15:45
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Yes, self-doubt is part of the process.

Write it, polish it as much as you can bear, and hand it off to some friends who are capable of giving you good feedback. Or find a professional editor. Particularly for an autobiography, you should get an outside opinion (or six) about what in your life might interest others.

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Is there a good reason for the expository sections to be in the book? If you were to remove them entirely, would the book suffer? If the answers to both of these questions is "no", then I suggest removing these sections entirely, or at the least paring them down.

However, things are rarely so simple. Sometimes writers put scenes in a book simply for color, and while they're not necessary for the plot, the book seems les interesting and drier without them.

The most likely solution to this is to find small ways to link the two sections. For example, knowing an obstacle you faced when learning dance X might lend poignancy to a scene where it was important you dance those steps and were concerned with getting them right. (You can even invert this: Say, we read a scene at a dance event, then jump back in time to where you learned something that makes the earlier scene seem different.) As long as this is done subtly, it works amazingly well. (You can even use repeated phrases to do this, or repeat locations or even colors and smells.)

If you're concerned that your flashback scenes might read like a dance manual, why not turn this on its head and write them literally like a manual? As long as you keep them short, this is the kind of device that can let a book breathe, varying the prose and letting you play with timing. (Just keep those bits short.)

In the end, just write it and worry about making it better later on; finish the first draft and then worry about all this stuff.

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Good advice in the first paragraph, thanks! –  Ryan Kinal Jun 10 '11 at 11:34
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I don't write books, usually, but I have been in need to write a fair bit: what I would do if I was you is to let someone else, someone who really cares about you and will thus be honest, read it as part of the process. This will let you understand if there's anything you have left out or if something could be written differently.

Letting someone else in your own world is the best way to catch some feedback you would never be able to get otherwise.

Andrea

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