3 TIPS FOR WRITING A MEMOIR

MEMOIRS DON’T SELL.

MY STORY Anyone who has ever broached the subject of writing their memoir with an agent, publisher, coach, editor, anyone, has heard the same reply – “Don’t bother, memoirs don’t sell, unless you are incredibly famous.” So what to do if you are not a former president, A-list celebrity, or much publicized convicted felon? What if you have an interesting story to tell, or you witnessed an event that you feel compelled to write about or simply want to leave a legacy for family and friends? What if you decide that you are going to go ahead and write a memoir, regardless of the advice of all of the so-called experts? First of all – good for you!

Heeding the advice of experts leads to committee-based decision making in which mediocrity becomes acceptable.

So, if you have decided to write your memoir anyway ( it’s a great place for early stage writers to get their feet wet), then let’s see if we can make it the best that it can be. Good principles of both non-fiction and fiction writing can be applied to help the process and we will deal with three of them here:

  1. WHO WILL READ IT AND WHAT VALUE WILL THEY RECEIVE?    Before you start any writing, consider who will be your target readers and what should they expect your book to deliver in the way of value. How will it make their life better, easier, more interesting? What will it cause them to stop doing, start doing or do differently? Include this thought process even if you are writing your memoir purely for the benefit of your offspring and don’t expect it to ever find a public audience. There’s nothing worse than taking your children for granted with a boringly told tale without a purpose.
  2. LIST FIVE HIGHLIGHTS THAT YOU WILL WRITE ABOUT.    Name the highlights or events and target your writing to revealing the interesting or unknown parts about them. I was once asked to work with a man who had written a 650 page family history but could not name the major events. He was also convinced that he didn’t need an editor because he had “spell-check.” I promise you that no one will make it through your opus unless you respect their need to be not only informed, but entertained, as well. If your life has been so eventful that it requires dozens of separate and unconnected events to be explained fully, consider a follow up book. “FIVE” is a target but a reasonable one to offer your readers a glimpse into your story. No, I didn’t take on the “family history” project – he knew better than I.
  3. USE DRAMATIC TENSION TO MOVE THE BOOK FORWARD – JUST LIKE A NOVEL.    So, you need to be careful here – if you make up something in the story that is not true – it’s not a memoir, it’s fiction based on real life events (see A MILLION TINY PIECES for what can happen here). The only way to keep the reader interested is to create, or reveal, the drama in the events so that they can understand that the protagonist (you?) ran the risk of either losing something significant or not getting something that you really wanted or needed. Maintain the idea of suspense throughout your writing and let the reader be relieved or peeved with the results. They will want to read more if the outcome is in doubt.

Memoirs are kind of a hybrid writing project based on actual facts and events but in desperate need of a good dose of excitement, challenge and plotting. Start with an outline and look carefully for those ways of pacing your story like a novel with suspense, and the possibility that life doesn’t always work out the way you planned. Have fun with it – who knows where it could lead.

One last thing, write from who you really are rather than that public persona you have been wearing and your readers, no matter who they are, will become your fans.

(previously published on “Book Mentor” with my own permission)

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