The Good Story Podcast

Episode 27: Roz Morris, Ghostwriter and Writing Coach

Episode Summary

Writer, writing teacher, ghost writer, and general literary icon Roz Morris joins Mary Kole on the Good Story Podcast. They dive into the mechanics of storytelling and discuss how to connect with your audience—whether you're writing someone else's story or your telling your own.

Episode Notes

Roz Morris:

Website: https://rozmorris.org
Twitter: https://twitter.com/Roz_Morris

 

Good Story Company:

Website: https://www.goodstorycompany.com
Membership: https://www.goodstorycompany.com/membership
Writing Workshop: https://www.storymastermind.com

 

Mary Kole:
Manuscript Submission Blueprint: https://bit.ly/kolesub
Crafting Dynamic Characters Online Course: https://bit.ly/writingcharacter
Writing Irresistible Kidlit: http://bit.ly/kolekidlit
 

Follow us on social:
YouTube: https://youtube.com/c/goodstory
Twitter: https://twitter.com/goodstoryco
Instagram: https://instagram.com/goodstorycompany
Facebook: https://facebook.com/goodstoryco
TikTok: https://www.tiktok.com/@goodstoryco

Episode Transcription

Mary: Thank you so much for joining me on "The Good Story Podcast," my name is Mary Kole. And with me today I have a writer, writing teacher, ghost writer, and general literary icon Roz Morris with me. I am trying to emphasize, the vowels are the same. Apparently, I've been saying it wrong this whole time. Roz, welcome. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Roz: Well, first of all, let me just say I am so delighted to be invited to this podcast. Mary, I have followed your writing posts for years and years and years. Ever since I first got onto Twitter, I thought, "She so knows how to explain, how to tell stories, what the reader needs," and I thought I'd found a kindred spirit. And so, it's an absolute privilege to be here today.

And now, who am I? I'm basically a person who absolutely loves stories, I love telling stories, I love all the mechanics of it. I've worked in publishing all my life in various ways. I began by running an editorial department. I didn't run it when I first joined the company but I ended up running an editorial department, so, I saw how books were made. I always wanted to get into writing, which is why I got into publishing. And I happened to meet people who were also writers and they encouraged me to do my own work. And from that, I learned really about storytelling from the inside. And what I have ended up doing is just story, in so many ways.

I've been a ghostwriter, so, I've written books for other people who put their names on them. And I've been, and still am, a writing coach. I've worked for a literary consultancy where I would take manuscripts and do in-depth reports on them, figuring out what worked, what didn't work, what the writer was trying to do. This was really trying to wriggle into their minds and see what they really wanted their book to be and to figure out how they could give that to a reader.

I've written books about this, about how to write, it's my series called "Nail Your Novel." I've got three books...no, four books in that series. I've got a process book, a workbook based on that. I've got a book on how to write characters in a book, on how to write plot. and I've got various creative works on my own, which is where I started, just, you know, like we all do, a person with an urge to write because there's just something inside that's gotta come out.

And I've done three novels, I released my most recent one just last year. It took about 7 years to figure out how to write it, it was quite a demanding book. But it eventually came out the way I wanted it. I mean, it was a complex idea and I just had this feeling, "There's something really big in here and I've got to figure out how to make the reader feel it as strongly as I do. And I always find that's the rewarding thing, it's a lot of problem solving. When you get it right, the reader just has a blast of a journey and you feel, "Okay, all the work was worth it."

And then I've also got a memoir, which was a travel diary that I had hanging around. And I just thought one day, "Oh, I wonder if I could do something with these." And I actually meant to just put them in a novel. And then my husband said, "Write them as they are, they're great," and I thought, "No one wants a memoir from me, no one knows who I am." But various people said, "I'd love to read something like that from you." And so, I wrote it and I had a lot of fun, and people liked it. And now I've got another one brewing, which is just great. So yes, I write loads and loads of things, but really, at heart, I'm a storyteller. I just love telling stories.

Mary: To sort of go back to the very beginning...I am also surprised that this is the first time we've been sitting down because you and I do similar work, we spin in similar circles, we're both on writing social media. So, yes, I feel very privileged to have you on. And you certainly do a lot. I think, I wanna put a question to you that I think about a lot, when you switch hats from editorial brain to writer brain, what is that shift like for you? Does it all fall within the category of storytelling to you or do you approach things differently when you're sitting down to write your own work versus working with somebody else on theirs?

Roz: What a good question. I think it all comes from the same place really. When I get an idea for myself, I have to figure out, "What will be the best way to treat it?" as I said, "what will make the reader feel the magic that I feel in there and the resonances?" And when I pick up a manuscript by another writer, I'm thinking, "What do they want it to be? What's the potential they see in it? How can I help them make the reader feel it and how can I help them develop it to its strongest work?" So, it's similar, really, because I find that each book I write is its own creature, and so is each book that I help an author with.

Mary: So, for you, one thing that you said in your introduction was that you find the intention of the writer, you get into their head and you try to figure out what that nugget is. Let's call it the nugget, or the idea, the feeling, the intention. And it sounds like your own creative ideas, that's how they start as well, you get a feeling, you get this idea, you get this urge to sort of transmit it. So, for you, it's all about figuring out what that core of the story is.

Roz: Yes, it is actually. Yes, I spend a lot of time with an idea kind of interrogating it and writing notes to myself. I'll write a lot of outline notes on index cards and spread them out and think, "What is this telling me? There's a big thing in here." I often think there's a big thing that I'm missing and I need to really find it. And I slowly find that my whole life starts to be taken over by the idea. If it's a really strong idea, it directs me to watch particular movies or to read particular books. And they all start kind of speaking to me and saying, "What about this? What about this?" or, "is this the feeling you're looking for? Is this the feeling you're looking for?"

It's much easier for me to do that with someone else's work because I can ask them, "What gave you the idea?" Yeah, "What are you inspired by? What would you like it to be?" And from that, I can figure out how to help them make it like that. And often there's quite a lot of giving craft advice. And what I find, and you must find this too, when I work with authors, is that there are certain things, they all already do very well because they've taught themselves, they've concentrated on it, they've really noticed it, they've really worked it out as their thing. And then there are other things they're not yet aware of. And that's like sort of going to ballet class and being taught properly, "Okay, this is how you make it look as graceful. This is how you take your bit that's already good and then make it into something that is going to really work and be a pleasing thing."

Mary: But the fundamentals sometimes need to be ironed out. Some writers are very good at imagery or world building or character, and then you sort of build up the other things to support those elements that may not yet be in place.

Roz: Yes, absolutely. And techniques like show, not tell. The number of times I've ended up telling somebody, "This is actually what you need to do to get the effect that you want in a reader." And all of the writing craft is learning how to do that to the reader, how to do what you want to do to the reader.

Mary: So, I mean, give me, if you can, an example from your own work. Because I agree with you 100% that one of the goals of the writing craft is to create emotion in the reader. And if you are able to transmit, you know, even 10% of the passion that you feel and the excitement that you feel and the idea that you're envisioning in your head, that's a big win. But creating emotion in somebody else is the stuff, the stuff of the writing craft. So, can you maybe give an example of how we do that? Because that's such a nice goal to aim for but what are the nitty-gritty tactics that you use to accomplish it?

Roz: I spend a lot of time noticing how other writers do it really. I'm a very analytical reader and I always have been. It wasn't something I ever had to be taught, I always noticed if a writer was doing something interesting with my emotions or making me notice something. And I'm a very slow reader and always have been. I did a degree in English literature and it was hell because I couldn't keep up with reading. I would get lost in a book. I mean, one book of Dickens could've done my whole degree, there was just so much.

And because I am such a noticer, what I do is I look very closely at what a writer is doing, how they're using particular words. Even the shapes of the words, not just what they mean but the way they look on the page, and the fall of the line, the order that the words are put in. All of those things add up to the way you make the reader feel. And I've always loved this. I've always loved noticing this. And really I think, if there is a secret, that is it, notice what a writer is doing to you when you are responding to it.

Mary: And you pull from, it sounds like, movies. You pull from other media, not just writing, to sort of break down how people are, I wanna say, "manipulating." But not in a bad way, how people are sort of working with an audience.

Roz: Yes, yes. And I think all art is manipulation, in a way, because they draw your attention to something usually in a way that you haven't seen it before or experienced it before. And, in fact, all good artists, I think, keep tight control over your feelings and your thoughts. An example that I use when I teach a class about pace is how most artistic media have got a very good sense of where your attention is and how long they can spend on a particular thing before they need to show you something new.

If you're making a video, apparently, there's a sweet spot of 15 seconds before you should change something, anything, but you just have to keep showing change. And it's the same in music as well. If you listen to any pop song, Verse 1 will not sound exactly the same as verse 2. Verse 2 will build on verse 1, it won't be exactly the same, and verse 3, and all the choruses and everything, it will always be changing slightly. So, your attention is always being drawn back to it.

And I even wonder if this might be quite a "Prime Evil" survival thing, actually, [inaudible 00:12:44]. We're probably wired to notice things changing. So, we notice things changing, and they keep our attention. So, this is how good artists keep us involved in what they're doing. They keep us looking and they often show us something in a way that's not quite as we expect but it's still really compelling. That's got quite deep.

Mary: I love this. I love this idea of change and pacing. So, when a scene maybe runs out of steam, you insert a character, you insert a scene change, you insert a setting change, you sort of keep the reader engaged by feeding them novel information or setting or dialogue. If you have too much dialogue, maybe you go into some introspection. You sort of keep things moving in that way because that's what sends flags up to the reader. I want, out of my own personal curiosity, what do you think is the most compelling emotion to create within that reader?

Roz: Oh, all sorts of things. Mystery is very good, people love a mystery. If you've got a mystery, you're dangling, "How did this happen?" Why is always far more interesting than what. And something I always respond to is a sense of yearning. If you've got a character who just deeply wants something...I mean, Kurt Vonnegut said that every character should want something, even if it's only a glass water. But there is a deep sense of want that you can often see in a character. And it's very attractive and it makes you feel like you're seeing something very genuine and even quite vulnerable in them.

So, I think I find those very attractive. I think if a scene seems to be going on too long, that's always a very interesting question because, "Why is it going on too long?" It might be that you've actually got too many beats, you've got too many new things happening and the reader gets to a point where they think, "I've had enough...oh, no, there's more. I don't know if I can cope with more." And, in fact, you might be short changing a story point by not letting the scene land on it.

Mary: We talk a lot about reaction beats being important, not just new information, new information change, twist, reversal, whatever, all of these things that are sort of coming at your character from the plot. At some point, they do need a quiet moment, whether alone or with somebody else, to synthesize some of that. Because the new information, that's the what, but how it affects the character, how it changes anything, the resonance of it...I think some writers neglect the ripple effect, that they're building it into the plot, they're doing their job, they're throwing the what what what at your character, a reaction beat is a really nice way to take a step back and let some of that land. So, that's something that we talk a lot about, just that synthesis.

Roz: Yes, yes, yes. Yes, I quite often see stories that aren't working because the writer, as you say, they've got this and then this and then this. But we don't get time to assimilate it with the character who it matters to and we sometimes don't get to see how it matters to them or why it matters to them, and then also what it makes them do next. That's very important. And a story will seem much more natural if you have these elements. So, take time to give a reaction beat and to explore what the consequences are for the person who has experienced this.

I think a good story helps you experience something in a wholehearted way alongside a character. And that experience includes reaction and consequences, as well as the actual events that are startling or shocking.

Mary: And that's how you get stakes, you get this sort of order of magnitude of why it matters. You know, something in the scene went well, "Now what?" And? You know, so? What are the consequences? Something went poorly, what are the ramifications of that? And that can really bring it back to what matters to the character, what the character wants. I think a point not to be neglected that you made is that wanting is universal, yearning is universal, but it's also vulnerable. I mean, it takes guts to admit that you want something, it takes a certain amount of sort of bearing your underbelly to put out into the world that you want something, that you yearn, that you hope. You know, even if the character is very strong, their yearning is something that opens them to the reader in a pretty intimate way. I think that's a great way to think about a character and what matters to a character. And you could open up story potential by putting obstacles in the way of what they're yearning for, you know. But that yearning, I think, is what connects the reader.

Roz: Yes. And I think it's incredibly attractive and it's often worth thinking about real life and how events in real life and people in real life make us feel. We're usually the most curious about the people who have got something that doesn't add up. Imagine two people in a relationship. You know, we all talk about our friends' relationships, don't we? And, you know, we sort of analyze and we think, "I don't think he's quite the right person for her," or, "I think she wants something more," and that is incredibly interesting. And when you see something where someone seems to have something missing, that's really interesting.

And, as you say, it's vulnerable and it feels like you're seeing something very private. And also they may not know themselves, and that makes a very interesting character to write about because you can then put them in a situation where an inner need and an outer need are going to cause friction and the characters get to think, "Well, I want this but I don't really want it but I do want it..." and all sorts of wonderful complications can come out of that.

I actually did have, in the novel I published last year, I had a character who had become a bit of a celebrity because she used to go out with a very famous pop star who was then killed in a mountaineering accident. And she's been trying to kind of live a quiet life ever since. And every so often people keep coming back and saying, "Would you just get involved in this because, you know, you went out with him, you were the love of his life?" and so on. And she's an artist now. And somebody approaches her and says, "I'd really like you to make some artworks that are about him," and she has always sort of shied away from that, but there's also a little piece of her that's thinking, "I do want to do this." And she doesn't want to do it and she does want to do it.

And she has a conversation with him where she's kind of saying to herself, "If I don't do this, someone else will, and I can't stand that." And it's just this impossible situation, two things she wants. And I absolutely love that kind of situation for a story where you've got someone who is confronted with some things that are not compatible, they're not gonna go together, and they really will have to work it out, and it often makes them do things. This is another thing, you start with an urge like that but then you have to make the characters do things and then you get quite a complex human story. Absolutely anything could happen, according to whatever you're writing, but this inner complication can make for some great stories.

Mary: So, I have a question about that. So, we're talking about the want, which is sort of the forward-facing objective, that a character has something that they can say and express that they want, and then the need sometimes, to your example, operates underneath the surface. Maybe they want this career in front of other people but they need to be taken seriously by a close circle of friends, or whatever the case may be. So, their want and their need are actually at odds with one another, which creates a lot of great friction. How do you create a juicy need for a character? Want can be pretty obvious but the need is often a little bit more...I don't know, nebulous.

Roz: Yes, again, I create these characters by thinking a lot about...I'm interested in the complication to start with, I think. So, I will think, this situation, I can see some good possibilities. So, what is it? What if this? What if that? What if she did want that? What if she didn't want that? And playing around and thinking what might expose, as you say, their vulnerable underbelly and put them in a situation that seems to, eventually, become, you know, a thing that will make them make a big choice that might change their life. Choices are really important. I think you have to think about how you are going to confront a character with choices that are difficult.

And then again, that is that is a very attractive thing, in story terms, because, as readers, we're thinking, "What will they do? We can see this is not easy." And if she does one thing, then that. If she does the other thing, then that. She doesn't want that. She doesn't want that. And then, also, you can bring in other people who will be affected by whatever it is. And this is a fundamental aspect, a story that will work whatever genre you're writing, whether you're writing kind of quite story-driven literary, like I do, or writing a thriller, or a fantasy, those kind of opposing needs, the real push-pull in a person's soul, it's always compelling.

Mary: So, you've written the book on how to write a book, you've written about character, you've written about plot in this series, do you find yourself a character writer or a plot writer? I'm not saying that we have to pick sides necessarily, and they're very interwoven, but I find that a lot of people lead with one over the other.

Roz: Yeah, that's a good question. I find I lead with characters but what I start with is a situation that makes me think, "Oh, there's a lot to mine in here." With the novel that I was talking about, the inspiration actually was a story about a guy who fell into a glacier, and his body was just stuck in there. And he's sort of gradually kind of coming through the glacier, and the people who knew him are thinking, "Well, anytime he might pop out and our lives are on hold because we know he's dead but he's not quite gone."

Mary: So, there's no closure?

Roz: No closure. And from that, I thought, "This is so interesting, just what might this do to people?" And I gradually built up a chorus of people who were highly affected by this. And, at some point, I decided he would be a famous rock star, which just meant the whole world was kind of on [inaudible 00:26:10] come back. But, for me, it came from a situation and then thinking, "What kind of people would have various difficulties with this and separate difficulties too?" Because if you're gonna have an ensemble cast, for instance, as I do in this novel, you have to have a number of different kinds of personalities who react in different ways to the various challenges. And it sort of just gives them different life dilemmas.

And from that I started thinking, "Okay, you know, this person is like this. What would push their buttons? What plot elements would push their buttons?" And I did that for each person. So, the plot came out of the things they would find most difficult. But when I've ghostwritten novels, I've ghostwritten quite a lot of thrillers, what I would do is start with a situation, again, but I would think, "Okay, from this situation, there are certain things that the reader will want to see because of, say, the special world of the story." So, I think, "What are those? So, I've got to give them this, and this, and this or they're gonna be disappointed. Then I've got to give it to them in a new way." And then, from that, I will think, "Who are the characters I need to give the reader the most interesting ride through this? And then what are their personalities gonna be?"

So, I kind of design, I choose a way around according to what I'm writing, what kind of audience I'm writing for. If I'm writing for my kind of audience, then I generally tend to start with the situation and the people and then tease the plot out of that. If I'm writing something that is more plot-based, like a thriller, then I will think, "Okay, I know there are certain kinds of beats I have to hit in surprising ways. I've gotta start with those and then find the ways to make people who will give the reader the best ride."

Mary: So, I was really looking forward to asking about some of the ghostwriting. So, how is a ghostwriting project presented to you? How much creative liberty do you have? I mean, with a thriller, you, obviously, want to keep in mind some of the tropes, some of the expectations of your audience with a thriller. But when you come on as a ghostwriter, so, I would imagine you're getting at least the core of the idea. Or, if you're stepping into an existing series, you're getting sort of a bible. And then what? How much guidance do you have? How much freedom do you have? And how much do you work with the originator of the series or story or the writer?

Roz: Each project is different. Sometimes the publisher will have a very strong idea, "We want the series to be," if it's a series, "we want it to be like this, and this, and this." Or they might say, "We want some books like this person's books." Usually, they're thinking, "These have sold well, so, what can you do that will give us a slice of that pie too?" it's very very commercial. If I'm working with a writer who's got an idea, then I go with that to make it as much of their signature as possible. Usually, they are well-known in some respects, so, the reader will expect to see some of that life that they already know about reflected in the writing of the book. So, really, I just kind of notice what is wanted with the project. And then it's like building a house for somebody, really. I'm kind of the architect and the executor of the books. And I use what I know about creating stories to give the client something that is what they want.

Mary: And what kind of research do you do or is there interaction with the client? Do they read and give you feedback and then you revise? I mean, when you step into the shoes of another writer or another idea, how do you hone that instrument?

Roz: There's a lot of research. Often the client will give me research of their own or I can ask them lots of questions. I usually have to do a lot more research on my own because there are always lots of details that you find, as you're writing something, you think, "Oh, I don't know how to describe that." The internet makes this a lot more easy than it used to be.

Mary: Oh my goodness, yes.

Roz: Yes. I mean, once I had to write a novel where people went scuba diving, and I've never scuba dived. So, I did have a dive shop just up the road, so, I went in there one morning and said, "I've gotta write a novel about people scuba diving. Can you just tell me what I need to know?" And that was great because I could smell the stuff and feel it and put it on and see what everything felt like. So, there's always a lot of research that you have to do for yourself to create an authentic experience.

And then you give it to the publisher or the client, but usually the publisher will be your intermediary. And sometimes the client [inaudible 00:31:58] and sometimes they do. Every project's different but I always try to make sure I do enough research for the book to be as solid as possible. And I have had people write to me, right, I got the letters forwarded from the publisher and they said, "Oh yeah, that was very authentic. You can really tell that such and such person has done these things." I thought, "I've never done any of those things." I have never abseiled from a helicopter, for instance.

Mary: Well, how do you connect? So, is it sensory? Is it putting on...you know, scuba tanks are very heavy, a lot of people don't realize, is it sort of...how do you flesh out those experiences? And this goes for ghost writing but it also goes for any kind of writing. I mean, how do you put those details? What details do you think are most salient, and how do you bring them to the page?

Roz: Well, I do a lot of research to find out how things feel and how they emotionally feel as well and how you think in particular situations if you are used to doing particular things. So, for the novel I described to you, there's a lot of high-altitude mountain climbing. And I've never been up Everest but I do know how to describe it. And because of my solid background in ghost writing, of getting to know what details would make a convincing read, then I've got quite good at asking and knowing what to ask. And with my own novels, when I've had to write about things I've never done, I've been lucky enough to find people who would read the manuscript and point out the areas where I'd got things wrong. You do really need an expert reader if you are writing about things that you haven't done because there will always be something that you've got wrong. But yes, and your point about the scuba tanks, I do remember noting that, thinking, "All right, well, I better be careful, I better not have anyone running with them on."

Mary: I have gone scuba diving a couple of times. And it gets easier in the water, right, you're not on land with those things most of the time. But that is something a lot of people, to your point, may not appreciate or may not even know that you can't really run with an oxygen tank on your back that well.

Roz: Yeah, I do a lot of horse riding. And something I've always found that I notice in books is, when people get details wrong about what you can and can't do with a horse or how difficult it would be to do...they seem to assume that they're like motorbikes, you just get on and it will do whatever what. No, they won't. But you can actually get some really interesting story situations out of doing that kind of detailed research. The moment you find you can't do something you think that you want the characters to do, that is a real opportunity actually. It's usually an opportunity to go beyond what the reader expects and to take the reader a bit by surprise as well.

And we were talking earlier about things changing, a good writer will always be thinking about what the reader is expecting and giving them something slightly different. Or maybe very different. So, research of physical things that your characters are doing can be a really good source of this kind of surprise. Something you always want is to make things far more difficult for characters than they expected them to be. Never have a situation where someone thinks, "Well, I'll just find somebody's name and then I'll go and talk to them," no, no, make that difficult. That could be a whole passage of the book.

Mary: One of the things that I find myself talking about a lot...because a lot of the advice that I give is modulated for middle-grade and young-adult writers. So, situations out in the world, you're not gonna have a wide-ranging Dan Brown style thriller necessarily, unless you're Artemis Fowl. So, I see a lot of writers give us characters where they make a guess and the guess is correct and they find a clue and it magically works out on the first try. And so, coaching writers to work in those complications, to subvert those expectations, to put an obstacle in the characters path is something that I find myself doing a lot. Because when a character is right all the time or they take risks and the risks always pay off, that's a little too easy I think.

Roz: Absolutely. And the reader always knows you can make it easy for the characters. They know you can do whatever you like. And one of the chief ways you make a reader suspend disbelief is by showing them it's not easy. And here's an interesting point I often find when people are writing action scenes. So, if two people having a fight, for instance...and actually fights are really boring to read.

Mary: Yes. Oh, I completely agree.

Roz: Yeah, so, you have to sort of try and make them a lot more interesting. I had to write a lot of fight scenes in the thrillers, and oh my goodness...but the thing that you must do is actually try and take the reader's mind off the action. Because the reader knows you can make so and so knock someone out, if they need to. And so, that is not interesting to read about. But if you watch something like "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," fights [inaudible 00:38:16] character. Because everyone knows very well, you know, the fight will turn out exactly as the story needs. So, just don't even make them look at the fight, have the fight do something else. Like, have it reveal character or have somebody find out about something else or something else happens while they're having the fight. That is much more interesting.

So, in any situation where you're just going to have some action, so, someone is driving their car and it skids...and the writer often imagines the reader will be thinking, "Oh, will they get out of the skid?" no, actually, the reader isn't really wondering about that because the reader knows you have already decided. So, you need something else to actually keep the reader's attention.

Mary: That's a really interesting point. I think we're talking a lot about the audience's point of view throughout this conversation and how anticipating and preempting what the reader might be thinking will help you make decisions that end up hooking the reader, so, who's manipulating who in this scenario.

Roz: Yeah, that's a really good point. I often think a writer is like those very good illusionists. In this country, we have Derren Brown who can...he is so in control of everything you are thinking and feeling and everything he's making you look at and misdirecting you. And I think a good storyteller has to be like that. They'll set something up and they'll think, "Oh, but I've actually smuggled this in and you didn't notice it was there all along. And then, when I make you look at, you'll think, 'That was a great twist,' but no, it was there all the time."

Mary: So, then how does the craft of shaping story get a little bit more complicated when it's your story, when the events that you are cherry picking from actually happened to you, you're writing a memoir and you can't just choose from your bag of tricks necessarily? Or can you? I mean, how is the experience of creative non-fiction compared to fiction?

Roz: Well, it was a very interesting exercise for my own memoir because I couldn't make anything up but I had to figure out what was the truth beyond just the events. And that's the real story you're telling, it's the kind of through line of truths, those are the things that are worth sharing with other people. The actual events are maybe not that interesting but it's the universal aspects of life that readers will recognize and will start to tune into.

And I find, when I'm coaching people with memoirs, that's what I'm looking for, I'm looking for ways to help and cherry pick. Not everything can go in, cherry pick a strong through line to tell a story that will resonate with quite a lot of people. We've all been in a situation where someone has told you what happened to them today, and you think, "Oh, so what?" But if they somehow have a sense of including you in it in a way that sounds like something that might have happened to them or that they might warm to or understand, that's a totally different thing. So, I think that's what you do with a memoir, you start off with all sorts of possible events that could go in but then you have to think of what you're telling that it's not just about you, it's about confiding and helping a reader almost share their own world with you in the process of reading.

Mary: I think, I mean, this conversation has had so many common threads that we keep pulling at but I think, thinking about audience in memoir, for fiction, the audience wants to feel something they wanna be entertained. When somebody sits down with you in the form of reading your memoir, I do think that they are primarily thinking about themselves. And any insights, any experiences that they can glean from the memoir, I think that the need of the audience member, the reader, is very different in memoir. I see them as coming for some kind of community, some kind of common aspect that they can find. They may not share your experience but they are hoping to see a story of resilience, they are hoping to see a story of redemption. They are sort of maybe going through something and they want to know that somebody else has gone through something similar. The events almost don't matter, it's maybe what you glean from those events and that you're able to then turn around and share with somebody else. That, to me, seems like the heart at least of contemporary memoir. This kind of more confessional authentic, "I survived this, I triumphed over XYZ." But there's also that, "And so can you," because you're then connecting to what the reader might be going through.

Roz: Yes. And I love those books, they speak to something in our common humanity, don't they? I recently read a memoir...I can't remember what it's called but its subtitle was "A Year of Not Sleeping." Amazing. This woman hardly slept for an entire year, and she describes it so beautifully. I think her name is Samantha Harvey.

Mary: I'm gonna look it up right now.

Roz: It's an experience at the edge of most of our experiences.

Mary: "The Shapeless Unease."

Roz: That's it, yes.

Mary: What a title.

Roz: It is wonderful. And you just think, "What must that be like?" And she goes into experiences that, in some ways, experiences we recognize because we know what it's like to not be able to get to sleep and how that kind of just wears us ragged, and the dread of not being able to get to sleep, if you can't. And but she has gone much further. So, there's an extreme in her experience but it starts as something we all do experience, from time to time, but she's taken it to the edge. So, I love these stories from the edges of experience that are still somehow very relatable.

Mary: And I do think that that is the nugget that launches a lot of memoir is something incredible or outside the norm or on the edge does happen in your life and then the memoir is you building a bridge between that thing that only you experienced, or maybe you and your siblings if it's like, you know, "The Glass Castle" family-story type of memoir, but building that bridge to the reader and what the reader might be going through.

Roz: Yes, yes. And when you are constructing that kind of story, it's good to seek these notes of common experience to think, "What is it that will enable me to keep the reader with me?" Although some of these situations, they're not all extremes, you do get memoirs that are much quieter, but the thing the reader is hoping to do is step into the writer's shoes and think, "Oh yeah, I do understand how that feels. I felt a bit like that myself maybe." And that's what keeps it from being unrelatable.

Mary: And I think...so, when you are reaching out, as a writer, to the reader in this way, I do think that there is a prerequisite of some self-awareness, some soul searching that is a hallmark of contemporary memoir. But I do think some measure of self-awareness is crucial to the writing craft in general.

Roz: Yes, I think it is. I find it most strongly in the way we judge our characters and the way we will be sympathetic to some people and not to others. I found it's always really interesting to see in a manuscript a character who's very unsympathetically presented. And I always want to know what would it be like if the writer kind of just put down their hostility towards them and tried to understand them for themselves. And, you know, this doesn't mean you always have to be sympathetic to every character but you might be missing a real opportunity to write someone far more interesting by really understanding what it's like to be them.

Mary: I'm thinking here of the idea that every villain thinks that they're a hero. You know, we may see...

Roz: I was thinking that too.

Mary: ...from the outside, they look villainous, you know, they're the antagonist, but they don't wake up every day saying, "Evil..." you know, "how can I be more evil?" They believe, misguidedly perhaps, in what they're doing and why they're doing it. They're as driven as any hero, they're just driven in kind of a different direction.

Roz: Yes, and I can't remember who said this but something I read a long time ago that really stuck with me was that with a villain...it might be an actor who was talking about this, but it was, "Find why it's good to be them because then you'll play them in a fully rounded human way." But I often find it, in manuscripts, there'll be certain characters that the writer has a blind spot about. And I'm thinking that there's a way here in which you could be kinder to them and just see what happens. It's always worth trying.

Mary: So, I'm very late on the train to watching "Succession" where I think everybody's big comment though is that everybody is so unlikable. But what I think that show does really well is it shows us those characters in their quiet moments, those characters in their yearning, to bring it back completely full circle. But all of those characters just are so hurt and they need so much but they would rather die than show that any of them need anything. But it's just very interesting to see them all jockeying for, A, position but, if we flip that and we look under the lid a little bit, they're all jockeying for love and kind of esteem and even self-esteem. That's just been such a fascinating character study, even though every episode leaves me feeling just gutted.

Roz: I love it, I absolutely love "Succession." And I'm so glad you mentioned it because, yes, those characters, they are in constant turmoil, as you say, they're looking for love and self acceptance. Some of them are sort of finding it hard to live with themselves, they have urges and they can't help themselves, and there's no way they'll let someone else in the family get one over on them. That sort of makes them just do things that they really have full control over, it is so interesting.

And I also love that the moments where you see how peculiar their lives are. I don't want to give any spoilers, and I'll be careful not to, but they all, one day, decide to meet someone and they turn up in helicopters. This is just not like the rest of our lives.

Mary: Every time one of them gets in a helicopter, I'm just like, "Oh my god." You know, at the end of the day though, their problems are so basic but they live on such a grand scale and the stakes are so high because it's this, you know, family business empire...But yeah, they'll go to like some warehouse sex party. I think it's this wonderful character study splashed against this larger larger-than-life world. And I think that's what really makes it so irresistible.

Roz: Yes, and, as we've been saying, the characters are so understandable because they are driven by these things we all recognize, these vulnerabilities and these and rivalries. Rivalries are brilliant, everyone has rivalries within families or with, you know, people we've known for decades. This is also understandable, it's a really basic level. And I think you'll never go wrong if you put things like that in a story because they will always push people's buttons. When people's buttons are pushed, they do things that have usually got to cause trouble.

Mary: So, know who your character is and then put them in situations where they have to make a choice, or they have to react, or something pushes against their wants or their needs. I wanna be mindful of time, so, I guess, I'll ask you how do you get to know that character? Because your approach is getting to know the author, getting to know their intentions, really getting at that deep seed. So, when it comes to character, how do you play detective, how do you investigate who that person is at their core?

Roz: A lot of thinking. I write notes to myself about what they might think about particular things. I find it helps just to look at their expectations, perhaps. With the novel that I finished last year, I wrote a chart of how they all felt about love, actually, what they thought it should be and what their experiences of it were. And I found they were all quite different. I had actually seven viewpoint characters, which was quite a headache to manage. But it just needed it, the story needed that. But what I did was I made a chart and just wrote, "Right what did this character expect of love? What did this character expect?" And they all sort of started really forming quite distinct and different personalities just from that one question.

Mary: And was love something you were working with thematically? I mean, if you hear you describe the plot, it's, you know, a guy in a glacier, which doesn't outwardly speak to the topic of love. So, was love kind of an underpinning theme?

Roz: It was very much because the world loved him because he was a singer, because his songs had come along at a time when they were all teenagers. And the songs you liked as a teenager were how you felt about yourself, about the world, about the people who...

Mary: Oh, 100%. My musical taste has not moved much beyond what I got into when I was 15, 16.

Roz: Exactly. So, those songs tell you who you were then but also really the core of who you are now as well, in a way. And there was that. There was the girlfriend he had, at the time, who was still regarded by the whole world as his lover, even though she moved on, she was trying to do other things. I mean, she was trying to have love affairs of her own, and all that was sort of changing. I kind of built the book really out of the ideas of love, what these people were yearning for. I just love yearning.

And sort of the big mystery that they had to solve of how to live now when actually this guy is still in the mountains and sort of coming down, he's like the song of their lives stuck. You know, you put on a record and it is that moment in time, frozen. So, this all sort of starts to hit me in a great big wave, and I thought, "Love is the key to this book. How [inaudible 00:56:17] feel about each other, what they want to get out of love now, what they wanted then." So, that's why love was a really big thematic question to use, to explore the people. And from that, you know, they kind of emerged as people of their own.

Mary: So, their relationships to themselves, their relationship to your theme really gave you a clear sense of character. And I would imagine, from there, the plot started popping up, you know, the former girlfriend of this singer wanted love in the present. And then you have, you know, other people coming to the forefront, plot starts developing. But I think that's really really interesting that it seemed to have started or crystallized for you in a meditation on their point of view on your theme.

Roz: Yes, really, it was what they expected of life and how it had maybe fulfilled them or disappointed them. And it just gave me the really deep-seated sense of who they were and what they were looking for. Some of them were quite happy and some of them were really not, they were kind of striving still. There was one who was a musician who worked with the other one, and he was still striving to be recognized. So, he wanted the love of the world.

Mary: Yeah. I would imagine being in the shadow of somebody like that would really set a character up for a lot of yearning.

Roz: Yeah.

Mary: Oh, that's fascinating. You keep saying, "The book I released last year," what's the title of it?

Roz: Oh, it's called, because it's set on Mount Everest, "Ever Rest."

Mary: Ah, very nice, very nice. Well, thank you so much for all of your insights. I could talk to you, I mean, forever. I have long suspected you were a kindred spirit, and I'm so happy to have made it official. Roz Morris, thank you. Thank you, thank you for joining us. This has been a wonderful conversation, so wide-ranging.

Roz: Absolutely, yes. I could talk to you forever as well. And as I said, you know, I've long appreciated your posts and thought, "Yes, she thinks like I do. This is great."

Mary: Well, your viewpoint, I think, has given listeners a ton to think about and just so much wisdom. Thank you, thank you, thank you. My name is Mary Kole, this is "The Good Story Podcast." Thank you again, Roz, for joining us.

Roz: Thank you for having me.

Mary: And here's to a good story.